Friday, May 30, 2008

Book Review: Day Keene, This Is Murder, Mr. Herbert and Other Stories (1948)

Collects four stories: "This Is Murder, Mr. Herbert!" (1944); "With Blood in His Eye!" (1945); "Sweet Tooth of Murder" (1944); and "If a Body Met a Body" (1946).

In the evolution of noir, these stories fall somewhere between the silliness of Carroll John Daly's Race Williams stories and the glory days of Gold Medal paperbacks. The middle two stories feature homicide detective Harvey "The Great" Stone, so called because of his ability to pull murderers out of thin air. In his talent for intuiting absurdities, Stone is rather like a hard-boiled Sherlock Holmes, except that Stone is a bland and uninteresting character and Holmes, most readers agree, is not. Grade: D+

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Book Review: Lawrence Block, Lucky at Cards (1964)

With reprints like this one, Hard Case Crime fulfills its mission in the universe. Lucky at Cards by Lawrence Block was originally published in 1964 as The Sex Shuffle by Sheldon Lord. The original title was terrible, and the pseudonym was not even to specific to Block--it was a name used by several house writers at sleaze publisher Beacon Books. In sum, this book might easily have fallen forever out of print, which would have been a shame. Lucky at Cards mines familiar territory with a great deal of skill: The book's narrator is a cardsharp who plots a score that could allow him to retire, and Block does a fine job of humanizing a character who, in other hands, might have seemed despicable and nothing more. Park some of your Hard Case Crime dollars here. Grade: B

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Book Review: Gil Brewer, Flight to Darkness (1952)

If Gil Brewer knew one thing, he knew this: Ordinary guys with perpetual erections should stay far, far away from sex-crazed she-devils. He illustrated this point in his debut novel, Satan Is a Woman, and then showed it again in his third novel, 13 French Street. While both novels are well executed, there is never much mystery where they are going. What makes Brewer's fourth novel, Flight to Darkness, more interesting is that his protagonist/narrator, Eric Garth, is not an ordinary guy. Rather, he is a veteran of the Korean War with a tenuous grip on his sanity. In fact, everyone in the novel seems at least a little bit crazy, which can mark it hard for readers to be sure that they ever really understand why anyone is doing anything. And in noir, that can be a good thing. Grade: B+

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Book Review: Richard S. Prather, The Peddler (1952)

Unremarkable story of an up-and-comer in organized crime in San Francisco. Tony Romero is young, ambitious, and misogynistic. If you read this novel, you will learn nothing about him more interesting than this. Grade: C-

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Book Review: Gil Brewer, 13 French Street (1951)

In his third novel, Gil Brewer revisits the thematic ground of his first novel, Satan Is a Woman. (There seems to be more than one woman with horns out there.) The narrator of 13 French Street, Alex Bland, goes to visit an old army buddy and his horny wife. Bland is named Bland to emphasize that he is just an ordinary guy--though he turns out to be more than an ordinary guy. Allegedly, he is about the most honest, decent, ordinary guy that you could that you could ever want to meet . . . which explains why Satan might be particularly interested . . . Grade: C

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Book Review: John Lange [Michael Crichton], Grave Descend (1970)

Midway through this book, I thought I would give it at least a B. The first act is top-notch. A professional diver named McGregor is hired to investigate a recently sunken ship, the Grave Descend, but the more McGregor learns, the clearer it becomes that he is being manipulated in some kind of convoluted scam.

As I finished the book, my rating was down to a C. As crime novels often do, this book demonstrates that it is easier to tie a knot than to untie one; indeed, in the final analysis, author Michael Crichton (a.k.a. John Lange) does not even attempt to make sense of all the plot's twists and turns. It seems that so many perplexing things happen in the first 150 pages simply because perplexing things can be entertaining.

And now, as I write this review, I am down to a D, because I have been thinking about the fact that the characters in this novel are unusually vapid, even for a lightweight read like this one. McGregor, the book's hero, is about as memorable as a stick of margarine.

Ask me tomorrow, and I may be down to an F. . . . Grade: D

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Book Review: Gil Brewer, So Rich, So Dead (1951)

In his second novel, Gil Brewer shows that he has a knack for starting a story quickly and keeping it moving. The entire narrative takes place across one day, beginning when the narrator, a PI named Bill Maddern, is summoned home by his brother. Problem is, when Bill gets home, he discovers that his brother, who is also a PI, has been murdered. From here, the plot proceeds at about the pace of the television show 24. Problem is, in the end the plot makes about as much sense as a season of 24, which is ironic given that the ending is not too difficult to see coming. Quick and enjoyable, but not much more than that. Grade: C

Friday, May 2, 2008

Book Review: David Dodge, The Last Match (1973)

The Last Match manages to be both entertaining and tedious. The novel is narrated by Curly, a bunco artist whose exploits we follow around the globe. Curly's narrative is episodic to a fault--one unrelated story is piled on top of another, and while the individual stories can be fun to read, it soon becomes clear that the novel is not going anywhere interesting, inasmuch as it going anywhere at all. In the end, this one was a real chore to finish. Grade: C-

Footnote of no real importance: In the pulp tradition, Hard Case Crime books are not particularly well proofread, and The Last Match contains my favorite typo that I have seen: On page 191, around is spelled arou.nd. That's right. There's a period stuck randomly in the middle of the word.