Review: ‘Thieves Fall Out’ by Gore Vidal

Thieves Fall Out by Gore Vidal
Hard Case Crime (April 2015)

The Hard Case Crime edition of Gore Vidal's 'Thieves Fall Out.'

The Hard Case Crime edition of Gore Vidal’s ‘Thieves Fall Out.’

In 1953, Fawcett Gold Medal published Thieves Fall Out, a crime novel set against a backdrop of political unrest in Egypt. Written by an unheralded author known as Cameron Kay, this minor piece of pulp fiction came and went without much fanfare. It has remained in obscurity since then, unavailable in any new printing and unknown to all but a handful of readers and scholars who knew the truth: “Cameron Kay” was actually respected American writer Gore Vidal.

Vidal wrote the novel when he was 28, and reportedly never thought much of it. When the book came to the attention of Hard Case Crime founder Charles Ardai, he immediately approached Vidal about republishing it, but Vidal wasn’t interested. After the author passed away in 2012, Ardai approached his agent and estate and was granted permission to reprint the book. The new edition was released in April of this year.

If you remove Vidal’s name and legacy from Thieves Fall Out, what you’re left with is fairly standard pulp fare. It’s the story of Pete Wells, an American drifter of sorts who finds himself broke and just this side of desperate in an Egypt that is teetering on the edge of revolution. He becomes entangled with a woman named Hélène and a man known as Hastings; the pair have a job they need done and they feel Wells is just the man to do it. The duo remains disturbingly coy about what exactly the job is, but Wells is in little position to make demands, so he goes along with their scheme. Eventually it’s revealed that the pair are working to smuggle a valuable necklace out of the country, and Wells is their chosen vessel.

Fawcett Gold Medal's edition of 'Thieves Fall Out' by "Cameron Kay."

Fawcett Gold Medal’s edition of ‘Thieves Fall Out’ by “Cameron Kay.”

Of course, in fine thriller tradition, things are not quite what they seem. There’s a police inspector, incredibly (and distractingly) named Mohammed Ali, who may or may not be “on the take;” there’s a love interest, a woman with a Nazi background and a suspicious relationship with the Egyptian king; and there’s a shadowy puppet master named Le Mouche who may be friend or may be foe.

Thieves advances at a methodical pace – not to the point that it plods, mind you, but patience is definitely a virtue. The writing is uneven at times; the young Vidal proves adept at depicting both the beauty and the grit of the Egyptian setting, but stumbles over the occasional clumsy phrase. There are no big action set pieces to speak of, but things accelerate entertainingly towards the end. It’s the kind of curiosity that Hard Case Crime excels at producing: a peek into the formative years of a gifted and influential writer, and an enjoyable if not essential addition to the crime genre.

Review: ‘Brainquake’ by Samuel Fuller

BQBeing a bagman for an organized crime outfit would require, one would assume, nerves of steel. When you’re delivering money for the mob, you don’t want to be late, you don’t want to be light, and you damn sure don’t want to drop a package off at the wrong address. So, you may not have to be the smartest guy to be the bagman, but you want to be reliable, quick on your feet, and steady under pressure.

Paul is all of those things, except when he isn’t. Sometimes Paul has attacks – he calls them brainquakes – during which everything in his field of vision turns pink. During these attacks hallucinations mix with reality, but Paul can’t tell which is which. His reactions are swift and sometimes violent. It would be a tough situation for anyone to deal with, but it’s especially brutal for Paul, who is surrounded by the kind of people looking for any kind of weakness they can exploit.

In Samuel Fuller’s Brainquake (out this month from Hard Case Crime and Titan Books), Paul finds himself at the center of a converging group of intriguing characters, each with his or her own agenda. All of the ingredients for an engaging piece of crime fiction are present: a recently widowed mob wife; ten million dollars of missing mob money; a sadistic hitman who poses as a priest and crucifies his victims; a driven, determined police detective; and a mentally distressed bagman with strong moral center. Fuller expertly winds these threads around and around one another until the tension becomes nearly unbearable.

The novel moves at a fast clip. The emphasis is more on plot than on character, but Fuller manages to flesh out each of the main players to varying degrees. There are several standout scenes in the book – one involving a bomb in a baby carriage comes to mind, as well as another dealing with some urgent battlefield-type surgery while trying to extract some important information from a witness. Fuller’s storytelling style is lean and uncluttered, and his pacing is rapid without feeling rushed.

The author is best known as a film director, with titles like Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss and The Big Red One to his credit. He also wrote a number of novels, with Brainquake being the last one. It’s been something of a “lost novel” for Fuller fans – he published it during a self-imposed exile in France, where he retreated after a dispute over one of his films, and before now it wasn’t available in English. Kudos to Hard Case Crime‘s Charles Ardai for once again going to great lengths to uncover a valuable piece of crime fiction and sharing it with the world.

 

Review: ‘Borderline’ by Lawrence Block

Borderline

Lawrence Block’s Borderline is over 50 years old, but it’s as raw and visceral as anything you’ll find in bookstores today. It’s a lean, straightforward tale of four people, each wallowing in their own kind of desperation, most of whom are bound for an unhappy ending.

Truth be told, you’re not likely to feel sorry for any of them. Block has assembled a group of interesting but unlikeable characters: there’s Marty, a self-centered gambler; Meg, a young, recently divorced woman on the prowl for some – any – kind of excitement; Lily, a 17-year-old runaway willing to use whoever crosses her path to get her to a more comfortable life; and Weaver, a psycopathic rapist and murderer. The four meet and mingle at the border between El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico, with almost universally disastrous results.

Block was in his early 20s when he wrote Borderline, and it’s full of the kind of unrestrained energy you’d expect from a talented writer just beginning to explore the depths of his ability. He holds nothing back – the violence is graphic and the sex is explicit, and Block isn’t afraid to mix these elements together when the story deems it necessary. The result is a short novel that fulfills all the lurid promise of its Michael Koelsch cover, and then some.

Hard Case Crime unearthed the book (originally published as Border Lust under Block’s pen name “Don Holliday”) and published it this month as its 115th title. They’ve also included two early Block short stories and a longer, almost novella-length tale to round out the package.

Book Review: ‘Odds On’ by Michael Crichton (writing as John Lange)

OddsOnHard Case Crime seems to be one of those rare instances where a singular vision is allowed to thrive under a corporate umbrella. Charles Ardai took his pet project over to Titan Books once Leisure Publishing dissolved, and he hasn’t missed a beat in curating his impeccable mix of crime reprints and originals. He still gets guys like Max Allan Collins and Stephen King to write originals for him, and he continues to unearth hidden treasures.

Ardai’s latest gift to crime fans is a re-release of eight early novels written by Michael Crichton under the name of “John Lange.” This is a project that was underway before Crichton’s death; HCC had already released Grave Descend and Zero Cool with his input – and with the Lange pen name intact. Now they’ve re-released those two along with six more Crichton/Lange novels, and all will appear under Crichton’s name for the very first time.

Odds On, a hotel heist suspense novel written in 1966, was among the first wave of titles released back in October (the rest came out in November). In it, a group of experienced thieves descend on an isolated luxury hotel in Spain called the Reina, where they plan to pull off a complicated plot that involves room-by-room robbery, the hotel safe, and a few pyrotechnics for good measure. The plan has been meticulously laid out with all possible variables run through a computer (the talk of punch cards is just one of the many quaint technological references you’ll enjoy throughout the novel) in order to calculate the odds of success. The computer says they’re good to go… but of course there are always variables one never expects.

Crichton paces the novel to match the crime. It gets off to a slow, deliberate start as the thieves move into the hotel, getting to know the layout, the routine, and many of their potential victims (readers expecting a cliffhanger in each chapter are going to be disappointed). However, when the day of the heist arrives everything begins to accelerate, both for the thieves and for readers. Odds On doesn’t have the kind of explosive, thrill-a-second climax that modern readers may be expecting, but the story is wrapped up nicely and patient readers will be rewarded.

As far as characters go, the thieves themselves are a somewhat bland group, but there are a couple of colorful hotel inhabitants that make up for them. The real draw here, of course, is the success or failure of the robbery, and Crichton does a good job of maintaining interest and suspense as events unfold.

I’ve not read enough of Crichton’s later, more popular work to say how this compares, but I can say that it is a fairly confident novel considering how early in his career it was written. Crichton’s attention to detail and fascination with technology are on full display here, and I look forward to working my way through the rest of the “John Lange” books to see how he progresses.

Review: ‘Joyland’ by Stephen King

Joyland“Who Dares Enter THE FUNHOUSE OF FEAR?”

That’s the phrase you’ll see plastered across the cover of the latest novel from Stephen King: Joyland, also known as “Hard Case Crime #112.” The phrase floats just beneath a brightly-lit carnival midway, and just to the right of buxom redhead, her hand clutching an old-timey camera, her mouth open in an “O” of surprise….or shock…or fear. It might give you the idea that between these covers lies a typical King horror tale, but that’s just carney talk. There is horror in there, but it’s mostly window dressing. To see what’s really going on, you’ll have to pony up a few bucks and step inside.

Devin Jones is 21 years old. He’s finished his second year of college, he’s head-over-heels in love, and in the summer of 1973 he’s taken a job working at a North Carolina amusement park called Joyland. He’s taken the job because his girl, Wendy, took an off-campus job and he doesn’t want to spend the summer mooning around campus without her. Devin doesn’t it know it at the time, but his relationship with Wendy is already over. It’s the job at Joyland that will get him through the first real heartbreak of his life; the job, the friends he makes, and the mystery of a girl named Linda Gray, who was murdered in the Joyland funhouse years ago – murdered and dumped beside its twisty tracks, after which her killer rode out into the bright Carolina sunshine and walked away, never to be found.

While it’s said that Linda Gray’s ghost haunts the funhouse, the only thing haunting Devin – Dev, to his friends, and thanks to King’s uncanny ability to mold characters that feel alive out of thin air and imagination, you’ll feel like he’s a friend by the time you reach Joyland‘s end – is his broken heart. While he loves his job and enjoys the company of new pals Tom Kennedy and Erin Cook, he spends most of his free time drowning his sorrows in moody music (“The End,” by The Doors, is a particular favorite) and books by Tolkien. There’s also the matter of the young boy in the wheelchair and his mother, but (aside from a quick glimpse in the novel’s opening pages) they arrive later in the story.

Joyland sees King working some of his classic elements, and working them to perfection. There’s the aforementioned character work – always the biggest draw in a King book, as far as I’m concerned. In addition to bringing characters to life he’s a master at bringing places to life, and Joyland, the park, fairly hums with it. Sure, it’s one of those places where if you look too close (especially in the daylight) you’ll see the cracked and peeling paint, the rust, the toll taken by years of rube sweat and salt air. But in King’s hands, and under the eye of its proprietor, Bradley Easterbrook, Joyland feels like the best place on earth, a place where fun is sold in cheap, generous handfuls. One of the most refreshing things about the book is the way that Dev, Tom and Erin fall under its spell. These are young people working a summer job, and it would have been easy to have at least one of them take a cynical view of the park and its patrons, but none of the trio do. Dev falls the hardest, but they all love the place and what they do. Even the life-long carnies that are the lifeblood of Joyland seem to be boosted by the work instead of worn down by it.

Joyland is one of those books that will invite re-reads down the line. Yeah, you’ll know “whodunit,” but it won’t matter – it’s the time, the place, and the people you’ll want to revisit, not the mystery. Just like the park in which it’s set, Joyland the novel is a wonderful place to while away a handful of summer hours.

Joyland opens for the season on June 4.

Stephen King’s ‘Joyland’ gets special treatment from Titan Books

JoylandCoverTitan Books has announced that three special limited editions of their upcoming Hard Case Crime release by Stephen King, Joyland, are now available for preorder.

Subterranean Press has released special editions of Hard Case Crime books in the past, but these appear to be directly produced by Titan. The three editions are:

  • A signed, lettered hardcover edition, limited to 26 copies, signed by King, housed in a clamshell box and featuring the Hard Case Crime logo in gold foil;
  • A signed, numbered hardcover edition, limited to 724 copies, signed by King; and
  • An unsigned hardcover edition limited to 1,500 copies.

All editions will feature artwork by Robert McGinnis and a map of Joyland, the amusement park that serves as the novel’s setting, by Susan Hunt Yule.

Here’s the synopsis straight from Hard Case Crime:

College student Devin Jones took the summer job at Joyland hoping to forget the girl who broke his heart. But he wound up facing something far more terrible: the legacy of a vicious murder, the fate of a dying child, and dark truths about life—and what comes after—that would change his world forever.

A riveting story about love and loss, about growing up and growing old—and about those who don’t get to do either because death comes for them before their time—JOYLAND is Stephen King at the peak of his storytelling powers. With all the emotional impact of King masterpieces such as The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption, JOYLAND is at once a mystery, a horror story, and a bittersweet coming-of-age novel, one that will leave even the most hard-boiled reader profoundly moved.

The paperback version is set for a June 4 release, and these special editions are listed as coming out on June 11. I’d suggest jumping on these quickly if you’re interested, as Stephen King special editions don’t tend to stay available for long.

Review: ‘Seduction of the Innocent’ by Max Allan Collins

SOTIFrom its lurid cover (another stellar effort by Hard Case Crime regular Glen Orbik) to its over-the-top title and scandalous premise, Seduction of the Innocent would appear to be a book as extreme as the comics that figure heavily in its plot.

It’s not. And while that may be something of a letdown it’s a forgivable one, because what you get instead is a solid murder mystery and a fascinating peek into one of the most controversial and misguided smear campaigns in American history.

Author Max Allan Collins uses Dr. Fredric Wertham’s 1954 crusade against comics as the framework for this novel, which he named after Wertham’s own book. (That book, mocked for decades, was recently thoroughly debunked and discredited.) Many of the more sensational elements of Collins’s story – congressional hearings on the evils of comics, mob ties to the funnybook business, drunken brawls and suicidal creators – are based on actual events that took place during that time, and many of its characters are based on real-life players in that saga.

In addition to these historical figures, Collins brings in a couple of his own creations – Jack Starr and his stepmother, Maggie, previously featured in the novels A Killing in Comics and Strip for Murder. Like Seduction, the previous Starr books lift their plots from real stories of the early days of comics (think ripped-off artists and feuding creators), making this the third chapter in a loose history of the medium.

The Starrs aren’t in the comic book business; rather, their company, Starr Syndicate, places comic strips in newspapers all over the country. Maggie runs the company, but Jack’s job may be the more difficult one – given that the artists are a moody lot, it’s Jack’s job to head off trouble when he can, and to extricate his talent from their messes when he can’t.

The Starrs’ comic strip business is deeply intertwined with the comic book business, so when a prominent player in the growing controversy stirred by Dr. Werner Frederick’s book Ravage the Lambs ends up dead, Jack finds himself embroiled in an investigation that encompasses several of his associates. The death doesn’t occur until halfway through the book, but Collins uses the ample lead time to flesh out the characters and lay out some of the fascinating and complicated inner workings of the comic book industry. The rest of the novel is spent shadowing Jack as he tries to find out who committed the murder and how he might minimize the effect it has on his company and the business overall.

While you don’t have to be a fan of comics or a student of that particular era of the business to enjoy Seduction, those who meet that criteria are going to find an extra layer of goodness in its pages. It’s hard to imagine society reaching that level of hysteria in today’s climate (well, in relation to comics, anyway, since comics, like all things geek, are in vogue these days), but Collins draws a vivid portrait of the uproar the country was in at the time – an uproar efficiently whipped up by one man and a handful of carefully manipulated “facts.” Into this he mixes an intriguing murder mystery and a colorful cast of characters. The result is thoroughly entertaining page-turner, and another win for Hard Case Crime.

Hard Case Crime plans February 2013 ‘Seduction’

Hard Case Crime seems to have settled comfortably into its new home at Titan Books, where it continues to publish some of the most intriguing and exciting titles out there for lovers of crime fiction. This week, HCC announced they will continue their long and fruitful relationship with author Max Allan Collins by publishing their eighth book together, Seduction of the Innocent.

The title may sound familiar; it’s also the title of the infamous 1954 tome by Dr. Frederic Wertham, in which the good doctor laid the blame for the “corruption” of America’s youth squarely at the door of comic book publishers – particularly publishers of violent horror comics like EC Comics. Collins’ tale is inspired by the real-life witch hunt that Wertham’s inflammatory book unleashed. Here’s the synopsis from HCC’s press release:

“Written by best-selling novelist Max Allan Collins (author of Road to Perdition and long-time scripter of theDick Tracy newspaper comic strip) and featuring 16 pages of interior illustrations by comic-book artist Terry Beatty (BatmanThe Phantom), SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT tells the story of comic book industry troubleshooter Jack Starr and his investigation into the death of a moralizing crusader out to get violent comics banned. “

If I’m not mistaken, this will be the first time a Hard Case Crime release will feature interior illustrations. The cover manages to capture both the pulp detective feel of all HCC books and the flavor of those EC Comics covers, and the HCC website states that the illustrations will be in “the classic EC style.”

I’m excited any time Hard Case Crime announces a new book, but this one feels like something special. The movement against comics that Wertham incited is a fascinating period of our country’s history, and I’m sure Collins is going to use that as a backdrop for a great detective story. The book is set for release in both paperback and digital formats in February 2013, and it can’t get here soon enough.

Stephen King’s ‘JOYLAND’ finds a home at Hard Case Crime

Hard Case Crime announced this morning that it will be publishing Stephen King‘s JOYLAND, the crime novel he’s mentioned at several recent speaking engagements, in June 2013. This will be King’s second Hard Case Crime release, following The Colorado Kid from 2005.

While Kid left some crime fans flat because of its ambiguous nature (it was, literally, a story about mysteries that have no solutions), the synopsis of JOYLAND makes it sound like a more traditional crime novel:

Set in a small-town North Carolina amusement park in 1973, JOYLAND tells the story of the summer in which college student Devin Jones comes to work as a carny and confronts the legacy of a vicious murder, the fate of a dying child, and the ways both will change his life forever.

JOYLAND is a breathtaking, beautiful, heartbreaking book,” said Charles Ardai, Edgar- and Shamus Award-winning editor of Hard Case Crime, in the publisher’s press release.  “It’s a whodunit, it’s a carny novel, it’s a story about growing up and growing old, and about those who don’t get to do either because death comes for them before their time.  Even the most hardboiled readers will find themselves moved. When I finished it, I sent a note saying, ‘Goddamn it, Steve, you made me cry.’”

The book will initially be published in paperback only – an interesting move for King, who has long been a dabbler in, and supporter of, digital publishing. King cites his love of paperback crime as the reason for the move, and considering that the entire impetus behind Hard Case Crime is to recapture the feel of those old spinner-rack crime novels, it’s a move that makes sense. The press release does not give a timetable for what I feel will be an eventual e-format release

There’s also no mention of special editions, but Hard Case Crime has been working with Subterranean Press as of late on special hardcover editions of their books, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see something announced at a later date.

The press release states that the book will feature a painted cover by Robert McGinnis, the artist responsible for the Sean Connery James Bond movie posters, and Glen Orbik, who’s painted numerous covers for Hard Case Crime (including the cover of The Colorado Kid). It’s not clear if there will be two covers, or if McGinnis and Orbik are collaborating on a cover, but hopefully we’ll know soon.

The Hard Case Crime line is published by Titan Books under the leadership of creator/editor Charles Ardai.

Finally, JOYLAND is a real place. It’s an amusement park in Wichita, Kansas, abandoned since 2006. As Buzzfeed writer Gavon Laessig noted when he first posted this a year or so ago, “This is the stuff that Stephen King novels and awesome roman candle fights are born of.”

Looks like he was right.

Hard Case Crime to release unpublished Westlake mystery

Once again, a round of applause to Titan Publishing for rescuing the Hard Case Crime line after the Dorchester Publishing/Leisure Books fiasco left Charles Ardai’s invaluable crime fiction imprint homeless in 2010. Hard Case Crime has become a wonderful curator of mysteries, thrillers and pulp crime novels both old and new, and its resurrection under Titan pays dividends yet again with this month’s release of The Comedy is Finished, believed to be the last unpublished manuscript from the late Donald E. Westlake.

The novel tells the story of a comedian who is kidnapped and held for ransom by a domestic terrorist group looking to have some of their members freed from prison. Westlake reportedly worked on the book throughout the 1970s, only to shelve it after seeing the 1983 Martin Scorcese film The King of Comedy, which shared the kidnapped comedian plot element.

“Aside from that one shared element, the two stories are completely different,” Ardai said in a recent press release. “But Don apparently was concerned enough about the possibility that some readers might see a similarity that he set the book aside and never published it.”

Hard Case Crime has published other novels by Westlake, including 2010’s Memory, which was believed at the time to be Westlake’s final unpublished work. Author Max Allan Collins, who cites Westlake as a friend and mentor, brought Comedy to Ardai’s attention.

The Comedy is Finished will be released on February 21 in both trade paperback and e-book formats.