Two more from the Hard Case Crime library - Robert Silverberg's Blood on the Mink and Christa Faust's Money Shot.
Blood on the Mink (originally 1962, this edition 2012) is a crime thriller from Robert Silverberg. Silverberg, of course, went on to bigger and better things, earning a collection of SF silverware that includes a stack of Hugo and Nebula Awards.*
Blood on the Mink has an interesting origin story. The main character, "Nick", an undercover operative, first appeared in the 1959 issue of a new crime magazine, a companion magazine to Fantastic Universe. The editor loved the story and asked for a novel-length follow-up piece. Silverberg complied and churned out Blood on the Mink. The company then folded before the story ever hit print. Silverberg later resold the novel in 1962 to Trapped, who printed the story... and then folded as well. Let's hope that the Ring-like curse is now broken, as I'm really very fond of Hard Case Crime.
Blood on the Mink is clearly an early effort. To call it "raw" would be a bit generous; the book is neither shocking nor strongly-voiced, merely filled with recycled tropes and petty misanthropy. As mentioned above, the hero is Nick, a government agent who is an undercover specialist. He jumps from job to job with only a few days in-between. Silverberg emphasises the rapidity of the change-overs both at the beginning and the end of Mink, presumably by way of excuse. Nick, in the way of all undercover cop dramas, may be beginning to lose himself in the role(s). Sadly, this is never explored, so the reader is left assuming that Nick isn't going insane, he's just kind of an asshole.
For Mink, Nick becomes Vic Lowney, a California hustler on his way to Philadelphia to broker a deal with a counterfeiting ring. The government has spotted a few of the fake bills and they are fairly magnificent - "Lowney" needs to weasel his way into the Philadelphia organisation, find the engraver and destroy the plates. With all the essentials of his role in mind (eats a lot of steak, drinks vodka martinis), Nick arrives in the city, ready for business.
"Lowney", Nick's decided, is a jerk - so Nick approaches his mission with the weirdly counter-productive goal of offending everyone. He blows off his contact (preferring to crash in his gorgeous hotel instead) and repeatedly rubs the local mob the wrong way. He then fumbles the deal so badly with his misbehaviour that the Philadelphia mob bring in rival bidders for the dodgy money - immediately endangering Nick's cover. If Nick has a master plan, it never surfaces.
Moreover, Nick's got some dodgy, dodgy ethics. He states that he doesn't like to kill the bad guys; in fact, he aims low because he's not "judge and jury". That claim becomes increasingly specious as the body count grows (maybe he's just a rubbish shot?). Late in the book, Nick deliberately engineers a gunfight between rival gangs. The more criminals that die, he declares, the better. "It costs money to prosecute people."
Nick's tactics feel less like the strategic maneuverings of an elite law enforcement agent and more like an adolescent's idea of what adulthood entails: he eats steak for breakfast, drinks without ever getting drunk and beautiful women all throw themselves into his bed. All, he gleefully points out, "perks of the job". So is, it seems, the expense account. Nick mentions it eight times through the course of the book. Nor does his bourgeois behaviour stop there: every time Nick dines out, he recites to the reader the cost of the meal. It is venal escapism. Seducing a mob boss' girlfriend is at least an interesting pulp thrill. Raiding the minibar on an expense account? Slightly less exciting.
Mr. Silverberg points out that Blood on the Mink was written in a hurry (twice, really), and it shows. As well as Nick's complete absence of strategy, things just happen. People burst into rooms, gunfights randomly occur, beautiful women wander in and out of book and mind. Trying to make sense of it is almost impossible. Even taken at face value, this book is less an interesting cultural artifact than it is vicariously vicious kitsch. It is an unlikeable character stumbling through an incoherent mission, focusing more on his expense claims than the task at hand. (Great cover though.)
Meanwhile, on the original fiction end of things, Money Shot (2008) is the first Angel Dare mystery from Christa Faust. Angel is a retired porn star, currently running an adult modelling agency. Angel's still beautiful, but being surrounded by all the young talent has her feeling nostalgic (and a bit insecure). So when an old friend calls and asks her for a favour - an easy walk-on part in a film he's shooting - Angel takes him up on it. A handful cash and an ego-boosting cover, why not?
Angel soon learns that there's a very hefty reason why not. The shoot is a scam, a chance for some nasty thugs to bonk Angel over the head a few times, rape her, shoot her and leave her bound and gagged in the trunk of a car. It seems that one of her models has gotten herself involved in a slavery ring. Keen to get her own sister out of bondage, the model has stolen the money that a high-up pimp uses to buy fresh recruits "off the boat". It is a disgusting sort of business run by despicable people and, like it or not, all the scum now think Angel knows where to find the missing money.
Well, except that they now think she's dead.
Angel recovers from her wounds with the help of a gruff security guard, Malloy. The two bond as they chase down the money and the villains, all while avoiding the police and several sets of baddies.
Structurally, Money Shot isn't so different from most noir vengeance tales. The main point of difference, of course, is the gender swap. Normally it is a man betrayed and left for dead, found by a good woman, nursed back to life and aided on his mission of revenge. For Money Shot, a woman - Angel - isn't just the star, she's in control. Much of the book's villainous behaviour is about the removal of authority, primarily from women and specifically from Angel. At the start of the book, Angel is proud that she's used the system [of adult entertainment] - survived it and come out on top. But the villains take that from her. Moreover, they're doing that on a mass scale. Angel's story is the pornographic American Dream - a rags to riches tale of working one's way up the ladder. The trade in sex slaves prevents its victims from ever having that same opportunity - that's, of course, over and above everything else that's wrong with it.
Faust makes control the book's focal point, even down to the last detail. Angel is always the decision-maker and always the one with the plan or the next step in mind. In some cases, this is more plausible than others (Angel is revealed to have a secret apocalyptic storage locker filled with cash and guns?!), but, on the whole, it makes her a powerful character. In contrast to Nick, from Blood on the Mink, Angel knows what she's doing. She's not padding her expense account; she's got a plan and a process in mind. Even when it all (inevitably) goes wrong, it makes for a much more compelling read than random flailing.
The plot of Money Shot, as noted above, isn't all that unusual, but the adult film setting is understandably headline grabbing: it gives Money Shot a unique shtick that separates it from others of its ilk. That said, the discussion of the adult and sex industries wanders freely between the provocatively titillating and the deliberately nauseating. On one hand, readers can take a prurient interest in the anatomy joyfully bounding about and Angel's fond recollections of her screen days. On the other, there's nothing remotely attractive about the sordid details of sex slavery.
On the page, the book's setting often seems a distraction: there's a scavenger hunt for revenge, but it is punctuated by kinky anecdotes. It ultimately begs the question: would Money Shot have been a better mystery if Angel Dare weren't a porn star? Besides the initial setup, there's very little in the plot that requires this background from her character. And there are other ways that the character could be involved in the industry without being of it. In a way, this would strip the titillating distraction from Money Shot, and leave it, perhaps, an even darker book.
However, conceptually, it all ties in to the big idea. When Angel is taking part in sex (personal or professional) of her own volition, things are great. When that choice is removed, things are horribly wrong. Angel frequently and vociferously draws the distinction between the two scenarios, and frequently draws on her own experience to drive the point home. Angel's background allows her to recount what happens on both sides of the coin.**
Even if the plot itself isn't new, Money Shot brings in a deliberately provocative new setting, has a dynamic and decisive lead character and is tied together by a strong philosophical theme. It prompts tough questions, but does so by being a compelling book, not an ill-considered one.
*Interestingly enough, the 'selected biography' of his Wikipedia page includes his non-fiction but not non-SF/F. Evidence of SF genre snobbery? Or are Silverberg's crime novels that bad?
**A discussion worth revisiting with the sequel, Choke Hold, which takes place against a completely different backdrop and with a different overarching theme. A strong female lead in a setting that's not based around sex feels like the logical (and overdue) next step.
Blood on the Mink cover by Michael Koelsch
Money Shot cover by Glen Orbik