Full house

The Hard Case Crime Read: The First 20(ish) Titles

Little Girl LostI figured it was time for a quick recap. Since the beginning of the year, I've reviewed the first twenty Hard Case Crime novels, plus three new releases (Seduction of the Innocent, Web of the City and Joyland).

You can find the full list here.

That's 23 books (10 original, 13 reprint) and 24 covers (Joyland had two). Which were my favourites? Least favourite? Most surprising? (The management reserves the right to change these answers at any time...)

Favourite setting: Richard Aleas' New York City. Several of the other books have interesting settings (Ellison's Brooklyn, Pavia's Miami, King's North Carolina in Joyland) - and I also liked the international jaunts with Guthrie and Dodge. But Aleas's Little Girl Lost is more about New York than it is anything else - how the city invites and devours, how it is a place that you can love, hate and fear. He doesn't "make the city a character" (a phrase I'm none too fond of), he makes it an integral part of every aspect of the book. In many of these books, the location is incidental, or mere dressing. Little Girl Lost couldn't exist without New York. 

Favourite sleuth: Matt Cordell, from Ed McBain's The Gutter and the Grave. A tough field, as well. Interestingly enough, all of my favourite were of a classic mold: the wry, flawed, sardonic con men and PIs of McBain, Westlake and Block.

Most surprising (positive): I couldn't stand The Confession the first time I read it, but on the second time around, I couldn't have been more impressed. It is an incredibly complex book that has a great deal of fun toying with the reader's assumptions and using the mechanic of the unreliable narrator to its fullest.

Most surprising (negative): Well, Say It With Bullets was another one I'd already read, but I was still taken back by how... clunky it is. It isn't funny enough to compensate for the lack of tension. Or tense enough to compensate for fact the mystery is simultaneously predictable and inexplicable. It isn't my least favourite (see below), but given how much I generally enjoy period romps, I'm still a little shocked by how much I didn't like this one.

Least favourite: Easy - The Colorado Kid. There are some others did I didn't like (Top of the Heap, Witness to Myself, Say It With Bullets, Two for the Money), but they all had really interesting ambitions and/or redeeming qualities and/or literary significance and/or were at least kind of fun. The Colorado Kid was a massive disappointment: a flawed mystery that's not a mystery and a writing exercise that goes nowhere. 

Branded WomanFavourite cover: This is really tough! I like R.B. Farrell's cleverness with Dutch Uncle and Bust. And even average McGinnis (let's be honest, Little Girl Lost and The Girl with the Long Green Heart aren't his best) is spectacular. Greg Manchess' Fade to Blonde is incredibly powerful, and a hint towards some of the (astoundingly) sexy covers yet to come. But virtually all my favourite covers turned out to be by Glen Orbik: The Colorado Kid (especially impressive given what he had to work with), Seduction of the Innocent (clearly fun and excellently linked to the book's content) and Joyland (which is simply fantastic).

I think my favourite of all is Orbik's cover for Branded Woman. It is gorgeous, atmospheric art and it not only expresses the book but interprets it daringly, giving Morgan a strength and agency that can be hard to find in the text itself (and, in the case of previous editions, minimised as much as possible). Orbik's cover isn't just great art, it actually makes the book better.

Least favourite cover: Also a few contenders. The disembodied heads of Top of the Heap are a little ridiculous. The action on the front of Night Walker strikes me as a little goofy. And Witness to Myself is both beautifully executed and... kind of dull. But - and it kills me to say it - my least favourite is Robert McGinnis' Plunder of the Sun. So. Much. Happening! Two men (or the same man twice?). Galactus-sized mannequin in huge hat! Menhirs! Donkey!!! AAAAH.

Five burning questions:

  • Why the changes of name in The Gutter and the Grave? This is a minor thing, but both the title and the protagonist's name have changed since the original edition. 
  • Why include an element of the supernatural in Joyland?
  • Grifter's Game has been published with multiple titles, why use that one? (And why select it as the inaugural title?)
  • What actually happened in Witness to Myself? (And, for that matter, The Confession?) (Yes, I know they are both artfully ambiguous, but, but... darnit.)
  • How about a sequel to The Girl with a Long Green Heart? (Not really a question as much as a plaintive whine.)

Favourite book: Ok, if I had to hand one book to someone and be like, "hey, this is what Hard Case Crime is all about", it would probably be Lawrence Block's The Girl with the Long Green Heart, which is clever, twisty and hard-boiled, with a great set-up and an unexpected (and weirdly rewarding) conclusion. And Joyland is one of the 2013 titles I've enjoyed the most. The Cocktail Waitress is certainly the most interesting (important, even) as a historical artifact. And Web of the City was probably the review most enjoyed writing).

But, and this kind of surprises me, the one I keep coming back to is Home is the Sailor by Day Keene. This is bizarre. Revisiting my review, I wasn't exactly lavishing it with praise. But the more I think about it, the more the (silly) plot fades into insignificance while the atmosphere, tension and horrible gut-punching, mind-blowing, tragically, empathetically-doomed characters won't leave my mind. There's a lesson there - not just about what makes great noir, but probably about writing (and reviewing!) in general. So..., congratulations to Swede Nelson, Corliss Mason and Gunnar "Day Keene" Hjerstedt. You've won the first round!

We'll pick up again next week with Madison Smartt Bell's Straight Cut (HCC #21)...