Prologue Books. Brilliance - I know nothing about them other than it seems a dedicated effort to bring back everything from Gold Medal. And being that Gold Medal was the epitome of publishing, I am 100% ok with that. [No, seriously - they were. Gutsy, courageous, commercial and inventive, brilliant authors, edgy topics, glorious covers - best publisher ever. DISCUSS.]
Anyway, I've been rather systematically looting their selection of ebooks, and here are some quick reviews of what I've read to date.
Mike Barry's Lone Wolf: Night Raider. Ok, the one loser of the lot. I was hoping for the urban crime equivalent of George Gilman's Edge series, and, well, close, but no cigar. Wulff is an ex-cop, a vigilante who knows how the system works - and how it doesn't. He's a stone-cold killer, a man with nothing to live for, a man who is already dead, a man who... blah blah blah. Wulff is a man on edge who talks a lot about how he's a man on the edge. Then he shoots people. Repeat.
As an "analysis of grimdark" (because spanning genres is fun), Night Raider is an intriguing and educational failure. Mr. Barry flips back and forth from Wulff's narrative to those of his victims, but he never tries to humanise the latter. Evil is either pathetic or dastardly, and Wulff is so boringly emo - prone to macho diatribes about how he's already a man that's looked into the abyss, still on the damn edge, etc. etc. If Mr. Barry had tried to make the evil-doers a little more sympathetic, and Wulff a bit more "show don't tell", the result would've been infinitely better. Instead, this is murder-porn. Oh, and riddled with racism. Above and beyond the era, I'm afraid. I suspect it might be lowest-common denominator pandering rather than any sort of coherently insidious subtext, but the result is still the same.
Gil Brewer's The Brat. I've had a mixed relationship with Gil Brewer's books and The Brat encompasses both the good and the bad. Lee Sullivan wakes up and discovers he's knee-deep in a frame-up. Worse yet, his his wife, Evis, is behind the scheme. No mucking about with gradual tension: we begin with a bang. Lee has to chase down his wife, figure out where he (or she) went wrong, and then clear his name. Evis is, of course, evil/sex on legs. She's also poor - and from swamp country, no less. (Mental note: figure out what's up with the horrendous classism against working class white folks from the squishier parts of America, pulp fiction is rife with the stuff - it has to be tied in with something going on at the time.)
Anyway, Evis is good, unclean fun, but Mr. Brewer sort of wedges in a Good Girl (Evis' younger sister, no less), who is not only not-credible but also not-fun. Good Girl wanders around pining after Lee and occasionally acting as a deus ex machina, she's a damp squib all the way around. The result? A mixed bag. Brewer does slimy, slinking oh-so-Bad Girl incredibly well, but the angelic counterpart is a bore.
Day Keene's Carnival of Death. I actually thought I'd read this one in the past, but I was confusing it with Carny Kill. Whatever was I thinking? Anyway - Carnival of Death - a young Cuban man (with one leg, damn Bay of Pigs) is at the center of a murder/robbery that takes place in his two-bit carnival. A charismatic talk show host takes sympathy on the man and serves as the amateur PI, solving the case through chutzpah (and having a ninja bodyguard and having a near-infinite amount of cold, hard cash to hand).
Again, a mixed bag. Some bits are great: the robbery, the sleuthing. Others, not so much: the dated pop-psychology about what makes women tick, for example (BOOB ENVY). There's never any real sense of tension or danger to Carnival of Death, which, when combined with the goofy sense of humor makes the book strangely anachronistic - more a novel of detection (Christie-style) than a novel of noir.
Ed Lacy's The Freeloaders. Probably my favourite of the lot. A group of expatriate Americans have tumbled into Nice. Initially, they're all strangers, but as time passes they're brought together in the circle of the charismatic and mysterious Charley Martins. They drink, they flirt, they spend Charley's money and they wonder about his past. It is a lovely - and surprisingly nasty - tale about jealousy, competition and resentment. On the surface, this is the manly adventure of four goofy chaps. Underneath, something cleverly horrible is lurking. Mr. Lacy includes a nasty little twist in the plot and then a nastier twist of the knife at the very end. The Sun Also Rises meets The Secret History. Slightly overselling it, but still, a terrific book.
Vin Packer's 5.45 to Suburbia. I had no idea what to expect from this one - I suppose something along the lines of John McPartland's No Down Payment. A bit of sex, a bit of murder, a lot of snarking about the overly ambitious middle classes. 5.45 ... well, only really does "sex". The book covers two eventful days in the publishing industry: the management hierarchy of a magazine is undergoing a bit of a shuffle, and the knives are coming out (not literally, alas). Our characters all have pasts - they've had affairs, stolen ideas, drunk too much... and Ms. Packer flits around in time, dredging up all their sordid little secrets.
On one hand, nothing happens. Seriously. People talk and reminisce and generally feel awful about things. On the other, it is an oddly compelling read - what (if anything) will happen next? I suppose this is a book about compromise: accepting it (bad) vs proposing it (good) - ideals, marriages, careers, pride...
Peter Rabe's Murder Me for Nickels. A good one! Jack St. Louis is the right-hand man of jukebox mogul Walter Lippit. When a new gang comes to town, Jack finds himself in the middle of a war that everyone seems to want but him. The book has a good sense of humor, and St. Louis is an amiable protagonist that works more on cleverness and (admitted) good luck. Everyone in Murder Me for Nickels has their own scheme and distinctive personality, with St. Louis (who secretly wants to be a jazz producer) the best of the lot. A bit like Hammett's The Glass Key, but with less edge to it; Murder Me for Nickels is meant to be fun, and, well, it succeeds.
Harry Whittington's The Naked Jungle. Another good one - very good, in fact. Webb, Fran and Krayer are the only three survivors of a plane crash. They wash up on a deserted island, only to discover that the real danger has just begun! (Dun dun DUN!) Fran and Krayer are (unhappily) married. Fran and Webb are flirty. Webb and Krayer are utter opposites. Let the fun begin... I like a Crusoe-style survival story, especially when there's a twist involved. In this case, Krayer is the undisputed master of survival. Webb and Fran must follow and obey him if they want to live. Yet, Krayer is also a dangerous, unpleasant man, and his demands on his fellow castaways grow more and more brutal.
There are two interesting themes at play. The first is, of course, "survival... at what price?" - what will you do (or have done to you) to live? The second is the idea of heroism. Compare this with, say, Chris Beckett's Clarke winner, Dark Eden. In that book, although very good, the narrative is ultimately focused around a single heroic character, with everyone essentially existing to support his story. Whittington's approach is more realistic, at least, to me: everyone is the hero of their own story. Webb struggles in Krayer's shadow. Krayer struggles when the others don't worship him. Fran struggles when the men reduce her to an object, and not an equal. It makes for a fascinating dynamic.