Hard Case Crime is an intriguing specialized imprint. Their publishing strategy, which I applaud in the abstract, is to try to recreate the substance and spirit of the old hard-boiled paperback detective novels of the 1950s (many of which were published by Fawcett Gold Medal, a publisher born in the town where I live, Robbinsdale, Minnesota). In order to do this, they put out reasonably priced reprints of out-of-print classics (including, bizarrely, The Valley of Fear by “A. C. Doyle”), and also publish new works in the pulp tradition. This extends to authentically racy cover art with lots of blazing handguns, fistfights, and half-naked women.
Having some Amazon gift card money to spend, I bought five of Hard Case’s titles. Alas, I must report that I probably won’t be patronizing them again soon. I encountered some very good writing here, but I don’t think the stories will appeal much to most of our American Culture audience.
The first one I read, and one I rather liked, was 361, a classic by the great Donald E. Westlake. This is a story of a man who comes back from World War II service to unlooked-for peacetime carnage. Maimed in an assassination attempt, he learns that his family is not the family he thought it was, and sets out on a vendetta.
Baby Moll, by John Farris, is also well-written. It’s about a Florida man who used to be an enforcer for a crime boss, but has given up that life and gotten engaged to a “nice” girl. But, as you’d expect, they “drag him in again,” and he goes back into a world of murder, seduction, and betrayal, and gets a taste of it all. There is some heart in this book, but the body count is awfully high.
Songs of Innocence, by Richard Aleas, left me very cold. Excellently written, it’s the story of a young private detective investigating the apparent suicide of a female friend. This is a book that should be confiscated – by force if necessary – from any person prone to depression.
Fifty-To-One, by Charles Ardai, is a very bizarre book, a novelty piece. It was written to celebrate the fiftieth book release by Hard Case, and to mark the occasion Ardai produced a novel of fifty chapters, each using one of the Hard Case book titles, in sequence of publication, as its chapter title. The story of a young girl from South Dakota in big, bad New York City, this book has sort of a lighthearted, Perils of Pauline quality, but is more interesting as an exercise than as a compelling narrative. Fifty chapters of this were too many.
And finally, The First Quarry, by Max Allan Collins, one of my favorite writers. This is the first (chronologically) in a series of novels which constitute a kind of departure for Collins. In place of Collins’ usually more sympathetic heroes, Quarry (an alias) is a professional assassin based in the Quad Cities of Iowa and Illinois. Collins does an expert job massaging the plot so as to make us root for a fairly repellant man in an even more repellant situation. Lots of violence, lots of quite explicit sex. Very well done, but not the sort of thing we generally boost around here.
So there you are. My advice is to be cautious with Hard Case Crime novels. Aside from the subject matter, there’s a very noir sensibility here, a consistent attitude of nihilism – or so it seemed to me. Pretty much all the elements (except for bad writing) that I generally warn readers about can be found in these books.
Lars Walker is the author of several published fantasy novels, the latest of which is Hailstone Mountain.