This is the second installment in our latest caper - a scheme to review each and every Hard Case Crime mystery, in order, one every week. You can follow along here.
Max Phillips' Fade to Blonde (2004) is Hard Case Crime's second title and first original (non-reprint) mystery.
A twisty-twisty period piece, Fade to Blonde's shamus is Ray Corson. Ray came to Hollywood to be a screenwriter, spent some time as a boxer, spent even less time as an actor and is now an odd-jobs man, doing whatever it takes to break even. As the book begins, he's fixing the room on a house for a dodgy contractor. But it doesn't take long for his luck, such as it is, to turn.
Rebecca LaFontaine (a fake name, and she gleefully admits it) needs some muscle. Lance Halliday (these wonderful names!) has threatened her, and Rebecca thinks the best defense is a good offense. She'll give Ray the (slightly depleted) contents of her purse if he'll get Lance out off her back. Preferably for good.
Ray's got a vicious temper. One of the first scenes in the book has him threatening his lying contractor with a length of chain. But cold-blooded murder isn't in him. He takes Rebecca's cash and asks for time, then starts doing a bit of snooping.
Halliday, it seems, is a man with many, many vices. A failed actor (who isn't?), he's now producing films of the pornographic variety. Hollywood's got no shortage of desperate female talent, and Halliday's doing well with his home studio. As if that weren't angle enough, Halliday's also mixed up with the local mob - a grandfatherly figure named Burri and an ice-cold dope peddler named Lenny Scarpa. And, just to add icing to the cake, Halliday's threats against Rebecca - with whom he's clearly obsessed - are getting more and more elaborate. There's lye involved, plus a whole gang of lusty hillbillies.
Ray's quest - such as it is - is to find a non-fatal resolution to the conflict between Rebecca and Lance. But he's not a naturally patient man. As the stakes keep growing for both Rebecca and, increasingly, Ray himself, it won't be long before he hits his limit.
Fade to Blonde is, overall, exceptional. It wound up picking up the Shamus Award (that's a thing) for being the best Private Eye paperback of 2005, and, without having an encyclopedic knowledge of the private investigations of that year, that seems pretty well-deserved. The structure - smart lug with a temper, fey blonde with a past, polished evil-doer and tangled mess of mobsters - isn't new. Mr. Phillips, however, exaggerates the darkness and the twistiness (that's a thing too) to make Fade to Blonde a rare success.
Mr. Phillips brings a contemporary sensibility to Hollywood's Golden Age and, accordingly, the glamour's got a nasty edge. Ray and Rebecca are no angels - he's got a temper, she's got a past - but the book's edge comes with the casual acceptance of the depravity around them. The dope parties, the pornography, the violence, the corruption... all handled with a sort of matter-of-fact acknowledgement that belies most literary treatments of the period. Even the angels are a little soiled, as the nicest people Ray knows are carefree with their sexual partners and playing fast and loose with the law. All of the naughtiness, existed, we know that now, but a book that treats it as the status quo... None of this would be shocking in a contemporary novel, but set against Studebakers and fedoras, Fade to Blonde feels like the ultimate in revisionist history.
Perhaps more than anything else, Fade to Blonde is a success because it is genuinely surprising. Mr. Phillips plays fair, there are no impossible clues or alien possessions, but he matches the pieces together in properly gasp-inducing ways. The mysteries surrounded Rebecca, Lance and the other characters are unpicked one bit at a time, and every revelation feels like that last one. Mr. Phillips' delivery is also magnificent. Ray takes one curve after the other, but always brings the reader along with him. It is good to have a PI that's one step ahead, but not one that's only visible through binoculars. Ray's not dumb, but nor is he omniscent. Part of the joy of Fade to Blonde comes with realises that Ray knows what you, the reader, have figured out - and vice versa.
Hard Case Crime are two-for-two, as their first original publication is just as impressive as their inaugural reprint.
I don't want to neglect the cover: Fade to Blonde is Gregory Manchess' first cover for Hard Case Crime. Mr. Manchess is one of my favourites, and this doesn't disappoint. Quibbles - I'm not wholly sure this exact scene ever happens in the book and Mr. Manchess gives Rebecca a... calculating... look that's at conflict with her (carefully cultivated) loopy demeanour. That said, this is pretty fantastic, and as a darkly contemporary approach to a classic pulp cover, hard to imagine anything better.