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Underground Reading: Two More from Hard Case Crime

Another round-up of the un-latest noir fiction from Hard Case Crime. From 1970 to 1986, a pair of hard-boiled thrillers from the modern era.

Straight CutStraight Cut, by Madison Smartt Bell was originally published in 1986 and, I'm sad to say, lets the side down. Republished in 2006, Straight Cut tells the story of Tracy Bateman, a freelance film editor and full-time jaded existentialist. The book starts promisingly enough - Tracy is on his crumbling family farm, actively not drinking while the buildings (and livestock) fall apart around him. In between glaring angrily at a half-full bottle and flipping through his copy of Kierkegaard, Tracy becomes aware that his dog is deathly ill. The decision to put his pet down is a rough one, and helps establish Tracy as jaded, worn and not-quite-as tough as he puts on. 

Sadly, as the story kicks in, Tracy becomes less and less appealing. Hauled out of his hermitage to edit a film in Rome, he becomes reacquainted with his former partner (Kevin) and his former wife (Lauren). The three form a peculiar love-hate triangle, made all the more gruesome by the fact that they're deeply unlikeable people. Tracy, as the narrator, is most empathetic, but he varies between periods of self-aware (and self-indulgent) weakness and reluctant asskickery. Most of the time he hovers in between the two points, meandering about in a self-absorbed fashion. Perhaps there's a bit of a bias involved about people that read Kierkegaard for fun, but, well, there is is... Tracy reads Kierkegaard for fun. Make of that as you will.

The adventure itself is also bit stultifying. Tracy, Lauren and Kevin are all involved in a complex heroin-smuggling operation that only increases their overall unlikeability. Due to his reluctance and rough chivalry, Tracy still comes out the best of the three, but, no matter what, it is hard for the reader to share his victory in getting a briefcase filled with heroin into New York City. 

Perhaps the real villain here is the 1980s. Long-lived, socio-empathetic writers like Ed McBain and John D. MacDonald both foundered during this decade. Capitalistic ennui and resurgent class struggles required a rethink of the traditional noir model. Bizarrely, the reluctant adulterer or the clumsy blackmailer became outmoded - replaced by the rapist, the drug smuggler and the serial killer. It took a new class of writer to bring sensitivity to the 1980's criminal, and I'm afraid that, in this book, Mr. Bell doesn't crack it.

The Murderer VineConversely, Shepard Rifkin's The Murderer Vine (2008, originally 1970) ably demonstrates how the moral ambiguity of the noir story can be translated to a (relatively) contemporary setting. Mr. Rifkin's story is a fictional revenge story loosely based on the real life murders of three young civil rights workers in 1964.

In Rifkin's book, the three boys (New England college kids, out to do some good) disappear under similar circumstances. They go to Mississippi on a voter registration drive, make some noise, get arrested and then - upon being let out of jail - are never seen again. Joe Dunne, a New York City private eye, is retained by the father of one of the missing boys. The client knows that a) his boy is dead, b) the "authorities" of the small town are clearly responsible (if not directly so) and c) he'll never see justice in the courts. The result comes down to d) hiring Dunne as an assassin. Dunne is meant to find convincing evidence and, if he succeeds, to carry out brutal justice.

Joe Dunne isn't normally a contract killer, but the vast sums of money involved make things quite appealing to him. He accepts, and then immediately hits the first hurdle: he'll never be accepted in small town Mississippi. Fortunately, his (lovely) secretary Kirby is on hand. She's a good Southern girl, up in NYC to break into acting. Dunne's reluctant to get her involved, but she's eager, willing and - when it comes down to it - the only way. With Kirby posing as his wife, Dunne can break into Mississippi society and start nosing around.

The book's set-up is almost perfect, and the rest of The Murderer Vine does a good job delivering on this initial promise. Dunne has to do a lot of wrestling in Mississippi - almost all of it with himself. He's drawn to Kirby, but knows that he's putting her in danger - and the closer they become, the worse it'll be for her. He's attracted to the semi-idyllic small town as well, where, superficially at least, everyone is happy & loving, surrounded by white picket fences and neighborly support. He even likes the local sheriff, despite knowing he's a murderer. This appeal makes it easy for Dunne to find acceptance - and makes it all the more painful when the brutal reality of the town's racist underbelly comes to the surface. Dunne's not exactly a liberal (even for 1970), but the senseless and horrific murders of the town's African-American population turn his stomach. 

The book builds to its explosive conclusion. Will Dunne willingly kill a handful of people? Is it for justice or for money? What will Kirby think of him? And what will he think of himself? Mr. Rifkin never gives his protagonist (or the reader) an easy way out. Dunne's final actions - and the results of those actions - are both unsettling and karmically appropriate.

The Murderer Vine, like Zero Cool, is let down slightly by a framing device that strips the book of many of its suspenseful elements. Given Dunne's situation at the start of the book, a great deal of The Murderer Vine is spent waiting for (as opposed to anticipating) certain disastrous aspects of the ending. Otherwise, the book is ruthless in its unsettling ambiguity.