Review Round-up: The Outlaws of Sherwood and Moon Knight
Friday Five: 5 Fantastic Gardens

Underground Reading: The Last Spin by Evan Hunter

The Last SpinEvan Hunter was, amongst others, Hunt Collins, John Abbott, Curt Cannon and, of course, Ed McBain. Under his real name Hunter skewed, at least in his early career, towards literary fiction, whereas his other pen names each took on other stylistic approaches.

The Last Spin (1960) is one of Hunter's more eclectic collections, spanning genres freely, but, for the most part, focusing on characters and emotional (rather than physical) challenges. The collection contains a handful of stories that have been reprinted over and over again - but also a few rarer tales. 

The opening story, "First Offence" is vintage Hunter - or McBain, even. It has a vaguely procedural format told from the point of view of a young offender, who undergoes his first night in jail and the 'line-up' the next morning. An older, wiser con tries to take the kid under his wing, but to no avail. Our narrator is, as they say, 'feeling his oats', and is determined to make the most of his experience. The reader is treated to Hunter's skill at bringing to life the gritty but inexorable process of justice, as well as the ability to craft credible, layered characters in a short space. Despite the narrator's manic confidence, there's a sense of foreboding, and the story's payoff is as just as it is depressing.

"Small Homicide" is a similar vein: a police procedural that plays it by the numbers, but is underpinned by empathy for the criminal. If "First Offence" is more successful, it is because it has slightly less overt pathos. "Kid Kill" is another story slightly undermined by the procedural structure. Similar to Bradbury's "The Small Assassin", "Kid Kill" is an uneasy balance between the plausible and the possible, and needs either more space (or less 'realism') to succeed fully.

"See Him Die", like "First Offence", is also told from the point of the view of a young gang member, but has a more ominous payoff. A group of young men find their loyalty to one another tested when one of their 'famous' criminal role-models comes back to the neighbourhood. Of all the stories, this feels the most like a "McBain", and could fit excellently into the 87th Street mythos - perhaps as a precursor to Hail to the Chief

"The Last Spin" (the most-reprinted and deserved so) also features young 'punks'. This time, two of them are playing Russian Roulette for the 'honor' of their clubs. In a few short pages, it captures hatred, hope, self-destruction and a certain sense of the inevitable; one of Hunter's best works at any length.

Besides "The Last Spin", the strongest stories are"...Or Leave It Alone" and "Alive Again". The former is told from the point of view of a heroin addict, who, thanks to a terrible set of coincidences, winds up trapped with his 'deck' only a few feet out of reach. The latter, "Alive Again", is a fragment of a domestic drama - a man and woman who once had an affair reunite by coincidence. It is a dark twist on the 'will they, won't they' story, as the two try (with varying degrees of effort) to resist the temptation of their old patterns.

A story I wasn't familiar with was "The Fallen Angel", which is also reminiscent of Ray Bradbury (or possibly Robert Bloch). The story is a vaguely supernatural horror tale about a travelling circus act. A trapeze artist is really, really good at falling - so good, in fact, that he attracts crowds with the spectacle of his act - his perpetual almost-demise. There's a bit of a gimmicky soul-selling spiel involved, but the atmosphere is the best part: the bloodlust of the crowd is a grim thing indeed.

The other stories are fairly minor works."Silent Partner" is a dated SF story about a man trapped at a remote space outpost with a companion that he hates. "Escape" has a similar feel, although in this case the man is trapped in his military routine - but despite his surroundings, there's still the isolation and ensuing madness.  "Robert" is a fairly mediocre attack-of-the-robots story and "The Innocent One" is a parable that would work a lot better if it weren't set in a hokey version of Mexico. Finally,"Kiss Me Dudley" is a pastiche of the Mike Hammer-style PI story (or Curt Cannon), and is laugh out loud funny, if very, very silly.

 The Last Spin would be worth reading for the title story alone, but, fortunately, is packed with a half dozen other short gems. What is, perhaps, most interesting is how Hunter's focus - and possibly strength - as a writer varies between genres. With his horror and science fiction works, the stories are 'high-concept' and, ultimately, less interesting. Whereas in the stories with 'crime' settings. Hunter's ability to create fascinating, engaging and, ultimately, heart-breaking, characters is on full display.