1975's Fawcett Gold Medal crime novel “Hard to Kill” was penned by Duane Schermerhorn using the pseudonym James Marcott. The little known Canadian writer also wrote two entries for the 'C.A.T.' series as Spike Andrews before moving into action and adventure obscurity. Over the years, Schermerhorn has contributed to information technology literature as well as dabbling in plays, music lyrics and reviews. While fans ponder his absence from the genre, we're left with a fantastic heist yarn that practically begs for a sequel or subsequent adventure starring specialist Richard Decker (the series could have been DECKER!).
Jailbreak aficionado Decker summarizes his latest assignment, springing high-profile criminal Gunnert from a Toronto jail: “This is the toughest job I ever heard of, and I haven't even seen the jail yet. My God, you want the guy sprung right away, and I'll have to do it before Browning does. On top of that the guy's a cop-killer, I've got no connections inside, and Farrell has his whole gang gunning for me. The cops could be keeping Gunnert in a paper bag and this would be tough. I'm letting myself in for a lot of trouble spinning him. I wouldn't touch this for less than a hundred Gs.”
By 1975, the heist novels had been perfected already by 60s heavyweights like Dan J. Marlowe and Donald Westlake. So, it's hard to be innovative and original using well-worn conventions. Honestly, “Hard to Kill” isn't. But, it's strength lies in the characters and narrative and with these elements Schermerhorn excels. It's a blistering 140-page burner that never lifts off the gas.
Decker is hired by a crime lord named Ryerson to spring a notable cop-killer named Gunnert. While the importance of the criminal is a secret to Decker and the reader, by book's end we're all in the know. Arriving at that point has our protagonist facing Ryerson's enemy Farrell, who has his own men and agenda to retrieve Gunnert first. It's no easy task, as Decker learns while casing the facility. It's multiple stories with a lot of personnel, brick and mortar. Increasing the difficulty level is the high-profile “protection” aspect. Gunnert is a bit of a prized catch for the Toronto PD. Considering the risks, Decker asks for $100Gs to make the break.
Like any good crime novel, we need accomplices and a girl. In this case Decker recruits the equally able Yorkin and Anderson while falling in love with a colleague's sister, the lovable Valery. In a backstory, we learn that Decker grew up pushing drugs. His kid sister got hooked on his own stock and became a street junkie. Now, Decker hates drugs and pushers and must walk a thin line between right and wrong – which eventually puts him at odds with the job he's accepted.
The novel is loaded with the familiar tropes – recruitment, gunfights, car chases, romance and the inevitable double-cross. But from who and when? That's where the novel eventually gains momentum, unwinding a slick story that never becomes trapped in the details or chores. Decker and his creator showcases enough talent to prove it isn't “Hard to Thrill”. Hunt down a copy of this old paperback. It's worth the time and monetary investment.
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