New Year Reads
Hard Case Crime
Early in December I walked up the street to my favorite used book store, Silver Spring Books, to say hello to my friend Cynthia, a former parole officer who is one of the owners of the shop. Sitting on a shelf face-out were four novels that caught my eye due to their cover art, fashioned after the paperbacks published in the golden age of pulp/noir. The publisher, Hard Case Crime, was new to me, but the cover treatment and my familiarity with two of the authors compelled me to buy all of the books.
I started with Fade to Blonde, by Max Phillips, who, along with Charles Ardai, created the imprint (for more information, and more titles, go to HardCaseCrime.com). The term Chandleresque is overused, but this book, centered around Hollywood hopefuls, hop, and the L.A. porn industry, came as close to any I’ve read of replicating the master’s style, and recreates the period without once reverting to parody. This is a superior, smart, exciting crime novel with a cover painting by Gregory Manchess.
Next was Grifter’s Game, a legendary early novel by Lawrence Block, one of this country’s most underappreciated novelists. Originally titled Mona, this is the story of a con artist/predator who makes the mistake of falling for one of his marks. Grifter’s Game (cover painting by Chuck Pyle), is plot driven, a perfect marriage of style to subject matter, and compulsively readable. As always, Block delivers the goods. I then read Little Girl Lost, by Richard Aleas, a pseudonym (alias, get it?) In this one, a P.I. goes searching for the clues to the murder of his high school sweetheart, once a promising young woman, now cold meat found on the roof of a strip club. Aleas builds his tale slowly and really throws it into high gear in the emotional final chapters. The Robert McGinnes cover painting—a scantily clad babe holding a gun—reminded me of the Fawcett Gold Medal editions of the Travis McGee novels which I still display proudly in my bookshelves. Finally, I read The Confession, by Dominic Stansberry, a novel in the literary tradition of The Killer Inside Me, and every bit as powerful. Stansberry is an extraordinarily evocative writer. I read this one in one day, and finished it as the clock ticked down on New Year’s Eve. Robert Farrell’s cover painting, a woman in distress, her breasts heaving out of her dress, is in line with the rest of the releases. My only quarrel with the publisher’s strategy is that I suspect the pulpish covers will put off those literary snobs who wouldn’t be caught dead with these books on their coffee tables, for fear that someone might not think they are “erudite” readers. And that would be a damn shame. For the month of December, at least, these books reinvigorated my enthusiasm for the genre. Like the old Black Lizard imprint, or Pete Ayrton’s Serpent’s Tail out of the UK, I’ll read anything with the Hard Case Crime logo on its spine.
Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates
Writers have been mentioning this novel to me, with reverence, for years. Their recommendations, and the recent release of a Yates biography by Blake Bailey, prompted me to give this, recently republished by Vintage (with an introduction by Richard Ford), a try. It is everything it is claimed to be. Many talk about this as being up there with The Great Gatsby, though I would more accurately liken it to Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night and John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra, two “relationship” novels that in their small-palette way manage to say quite a bit about our society. Revolutionary Road is a prophetic, lacerating, and ultimately devastating novel. For this one alone, Yates belongs in the pantheon.