Showing posts with label Hard Case Crime. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Hard Case Crime. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Nolan #03 - Fly Paper

Max Allan CollinsNolan series is his pastiche of Richard Stark’s Parker series. The third novel in the chronology was Fly Paper written in 1973 but not published until 1981. The book has recently been repackaged by Hard Case Crime in a twofer marketed as Double Down.

For the uninitiated, Nolan is a hard-nosed thief who makes a living pulling heists that inevitably run into problems. Much of this book’s focus is on Jon, Nolan’s comic book collecting sidekick. The action kicks off with a colleague named Breen, who has a good thing going with a parking meter rip-off scam. Breen was working the coin theft organized by the redneck Comfort family before those hillbillies shot and double-crossed Breen landing him squarely in Nolan and Jon’s orbit.

This leads to a plan to rip off the Comfort family in a heist-the-heisters kinda deal. The action moves from Iowa to Detroit in the shadow of a large comic book convention. The heist itself is really a side-dish in the paperback with the main course being the commercial airline getaway that is interrupted by a skyjacking.

Between 1961 and 1972, there were 159 skyjackings in American airspace with the majority between 1968 and 1972. It was a vexing criminal social contagion without a clear solution - similar to the problem America currently faces with mass shootings. Collins draws upon this phenomenon as the backdrop of Fly Paper when a married guy plans a D.B. Cooper style airplane heist with a parachute getaway.

When Nolan and Jon are coincidentally on the plane as the dude takes control of the jet, the plotting and action soar. These are the best scenes in a book I’ve read in ages. The creativity at work with the dilemma facing Nolan and Jon sets Fly Paper apart from other heist novels of the paperback original era.

Fly Paper is also unquestionably the best of the first three Nolan novels. The inclusion of Jon as a sidekick gives the book its own identity rather than just being a cover song from a Richard Stark Tribute Band. The skyjacking storyline was brilliant, and everything about his slim paperback leaves the reader wanting more. Highest recommendation. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Thursday, January 19, 2023

Five Decembers

The 2022 Edgar Award for Best Novel went to our friends over at Hard Case Crime for an original work called Five Decembers. The author is a successful contemporary novelist named Jonathan Moore using the pseudonym James Kestrel.

It’s Thanksgiving, 1941 and Honolulu Police Homicide Detective Joe McGrady has no idea that Japanese planes will soon be headed his way to bomb Pearl Harbor and change the world forever. McGrady spent some time in the U.S. Army before becoming a patrolman in Honolulu. Four years later, he’s a new detective who just caught his first murder case.

And what a case it is! A young man and woman are found slaughtered in a dairy farm shed on Oahu’s windward side in a bloodbath not for weak stomachs. The dairy farmer is politically-connected and one of the victims has ties to local Navy brass. McGrady is under a ton of scrutiny from his bosses, and he’s feeling the pressure to solve this thing quickly and with minimal fanfare in the news.

The author’s writing mimics the style of James Ellroy in his Los Angeles Quartet/American Tabloid period - a hardboiled cop doing his best to solve a murder case in the shadow of world-changing events — namely World War 2.

It’s a pretty standard hardboiled police procedural with international implications that receives a giant boost of storytelling nitro when the Pearl Harbor attack occurs and the war with Japan commences. At that point, this good book becomes a great one.

The fictional events that transpire during the war and thereafter were among the most creative and unexpected plots that I’ve ever read in crime-fiction. You want heartbreak and romance? It’s there. You want bone-crunching hardboiled violence? You got it. You want a clever espionage thriller? Here you go.

Don’t let anyone spoil this novel for you. It’s not just the Best Mystery Novel of 2022, it’s the finest book I’ve read in 20 years. Essential reading for paperback genre fiction fans. Highest recommendation.

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Monday, July 25, 2022

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 98

Gil Brewer is a fixture of mid-20th century crime-fiction, and on this episode, Eric and Tom discuss his life and career. Tom tells listeners about a new collection of short-stories by Robert Colby and Eric highlights the career of crime-noir writer James M. Fox. Reviews include a post-apocalyptic novel that was the basis for the 1979 film Ravagers and a Manning Lee Stokes classic. Listen on any podcast app, or download directly HERE

Listen to "Episode 98: Gil Brewer" on Spreaker.

Friday, January 28, 2022

John Blake #01 - Little Girl Lost

Charles Ardai is the founder and publisher of the Hard Case Crime paperback imprint. Using the pseudonym Richard Aleas, he wrote two original, contemporary mystery novels starring a New York private eye named John Blake for Hard Case Crime. The first Blake novel, Little Girl Lost (2004), was nominated for an Edgar Award and remains available today in all formats.

The paperback opens with Blake remembering Miranda Sugarman, the sweet neighborhood girl who took his virginity years ago. She left Blake behind after high school to attend a university with a goal to become a doctor. Blake learns of her death from an exploitive newspaper headline reading, “Stripper Murdered.” Without a client, he decided to investigate her death and gain a better understanding of his former friend’s life and death.

One of my favorite elements of the set-up is Blake’s boss in the PI firm, a much older ex-cop named Leo, who plucked Blake out of college and mentored him in the investigation racket. He’s the perfect, world-weary antithesis to Blake’s youthful idealism and quest for justice. He’s also well-connected within the NYPD and a great asset to Blake’s side.

The trail to the truth takes Blake into the behind-the-scenes world of seedy NYC strip clubs. It’s a fascinating look behind the curtain as Blake encounters a conspiracy of dope, missing college girls and much more. Blake is a fallible hero who takes more than a few beatings, but is always smart, capable and upbeat. His narration moves the plot forward at a good pace and is never boring.

Ardai is a much better writer than I was expecting, and Little Girl Lost was a solid, workmanlike private eye mystery with plenty of twists leading to the satisfying solution. It’s an easy recommendation, and I look forward to reading the sequel, Songs of Innocence, from 2011. 

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Nolan #01 - Bait Money

The Nolan series by Max Allan Collins lasted for nine installments stretching between 1973 and 2021 with some sizable gaps in there. The books are a pastiche of the Parker series by Donald E. Westlake/Richard Stark written with Westlake’s blessing. Hard Case Crime has reprinted the first two installments in one volume called Two for the Money, but I’m starting with the opener, Bait Money from 1973.

As we meet Nolan, he’s a 48 year-old professional heist man recovering from a bullet wound with a dame while feeling sorry for himself. Sixteen years ago, Nolan made enemies with a mid-level Chicago mobster named Charlie, and he’s been dodging and catching bullets from the guy ever since. Through an intermediary, Nolan attempts to broker a truce with Charlie so he can retire from the heist business in peace and run a nightclub without looking over his shoulder.

Finding peace with Charlie comes with a price of $100,000, and the only way to get that kind of cash is to pull one more job. Nolan teams up with three amateurs (always a mistake in heist fiction) to knock over a bank in Davenport, Iowa. Collins populates the paperback with an outstanding supporting cast of underworld characters and bumbling wannabes. The heist planning section is particularly rewarding, and the robbery and aftermath both contain many Grade-A action set pieces.

Overall, Nolan is a more vulnerable character than Stark/Westlake’s stoic Parker, but the differences really worked well. The story structure was similar, and I can’t imagine anyone liking one series and not liking the other. I’m told that Bait Money flows nicely into the second book, Blood Money, so I’m excited to dive back in for more Nolan action.

Addendum: The Nolan Novels in Order

  • Bait Money (1973)    
  • Blood Money (1973)
  • Fly Paper (1981)
  • Hush Money (1981)
  • Hard Cash (1981)
  • Scratch Fever (1982)
  • Spree (1987)
  • Mourn the Living (1999)
  • Skim Deep (2021)

Buy a copy of the first two Nolan novels HERE

Monday, March 1, 2021

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 80

On Episode 80 of the Paperback Warrior Podcast, we review the new Stephen King book LATER from Hard Case Crime. Also: Two series titles called Decoy? Plus: Bill S. Ballinger, Paul Whelton, Gary Dean, John Sanford and more! Listen on your favorite podcast app or or download directly HERE

Donate to the show HERE

Listen to "Episode 80: Stephen King's Later" on Spreaker.

Thursday, February 18, 2021


Since 2004, Hard Case Crime has been the nation’s most successful publisher of new and reprint crime fiction. In 2005, the upstart paperback house struck literary gold with the publication rights to Stephen King’s The Colorado Kid. It happened again in 2013 with Joyland, and now again in 2021 with his new book Later.

Our narrator is a 22 year-old young man named Jamie Conklin telling the reader the story of things that happened when he was a kid. Jamie is the only son of a single, literary agent mother in Manhattan. Jamie also sees dead people - pretty much just like the kid in The Sixth Sense. He warns the reader in his intro, “I think this is a horror story.” It’s the truth, but the story takes awhile to heat up before things get truly scary.

Jamie explains that dead people always tell the truth when they talk to him. Sometimes they say something funny and blunt like telling the boy that his school art project sucks. Other times it’s a useful tip like where the old lady hid her jewels before she passed away. His access to the dead is limited to the few days after passing before the deceased fade away into the great beyond. Jamie is candid with his mom about his ability, and she warns him to never tell anybody that he sees dead people.

Later jumps around quite a bit while focusing on Jamie’s upbringing and a variety of incidences where his ability to see and illicit information from dead people proves useful. Mom’s best friend is an NYPD detective named Liz. She’s the stacked brunette on the book’s cover. Over time, Liz comes to believe and accept Jamie’s sixth-sense and figures out some uses for it in the realm of her police work. As such, Jamie gets pressed into service by Liz using his unusual ability.

King writes Later in a breezy first-person style with super-short chapters that are easy to follow despite the often non-linear timeline. It takes forever for an actual plot to develop, but you don’t really mind because Jamie is a likable kid who makes the reader invested in his well-being. As advertised, the paperback eventually becomes a horror story with some honest-to-goodness creepy and unsettling set-pieces reminding the reader that Stephen King still has chops.

Beyond that, there’s not much to tell that won’t spoil the fun for you. Later is a quick and fulfilling read - arguably the strongest and most on-brand of his Hard Case Crime offerings. King excels at this kind of of coming-of-age horror story with vivid characters and chilling situations with a good hero confronting supernatural evil. King has a large back catalogue of epic works, so Later is unlikely to be your favorite among them. However, I can’t imagine any of his fans walking away dissatisfied from this superb little novel. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Night Walker

Donald Hamilton hit the jackpot in 1960 with his Matt Helm series of spy-adventure novels. Before that, he churned out a respectable library of stand-alone westerns, mysteries, and thrillers, including Night Walker from 1954. The novel was reprinted by Hard Case Crime in 2006 and remains in print today.

The paperback opens with U.S. Navy Reserve Lieutenant Dave Young hitchhiking his way to Norfolk, Virginia to report for duty. A stranger named Larry Wilson gives Dave a ride and during the trip, Larry knocks Dave unconscious with a tire iron. Dave awakens in a hospital bed with his head wrapped in bandages. The nurses are under the impression that Dave is actually Larry and claim that he was in a car accident alone. It quickly becomes clear that Larry staged the accident with the intent of switching clothing and identities with Dave. Moreover, the car containing unconscious Dave was on fire and almost exploded. Bottom line: Dave was never supposed to wake up in the hospital or at all.

While still sedated, Dave is discharged from the hospital with his face wrapped in bandages and sent home with Larry’s estranged wife, Elizabeth. She seems to have an understanding about what’s just happened and admits to Dave that this is her first kidnapping. I won’t spoil the hidden agenda here that has swept poor Dave into all this intrigue, but it’s compelling as hell. This is one of those novels - like Hamilton’s Line of Fire - that is filled with revelations as the story unfolds. Dave finds himself enmeshed in the the type of impossible quandary that Alfred Hitchcock would have loved.

Dave’s core dilemma is this: Larry Wilson is a pillar in the community. Who would believe that Larry would have staged an unprovoked attack on Dave, a stranger he picked up on the road? What would the police think if told this story by a man wearing Larry’s clothing and wristwatch? Dave figures correctly that - despite having done nothing wrong - the unlikely situation makes him look guilty of something, including desertion from the Navy. Meanwhile, where’s the real Larry?

Beyond that, there’s not much else I want to tell you about Night Walker - other than you should get a copy and read it ASAP. It’s a fun thrill ride of changing loyalties with tons of plot twists along the way. It’s the thinking man’s suspense novel you deserve. Fans of his work will recognize Dave’s cool-under-pressure commitment to logic and reason as Hamilton’s early attempt at finding the voice he later used for the Matt Helm books.

Hard Case Crime was smart to reprint Night Walker. Some other enterprising reprint house should take the initiative and get Hamilton’s other stand-alone books back in print. The guy was a national treasure and deserves to be remembered. Recommended. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

The Colorado Kid

Hard Case Crime began publishing original novels and reprints in September 2004. After releasing titles by literary kings including Lawrence Block, Max Allan Collins, Day Keene, Donald Westlake and Erle Stanley Gardner, the publisher's first year was remarkable. After just one year of publishing, Hard Case Crime struck gold by landing the publication rights to an original novel by horror megaseller Stephen King. The Colorado Kid was published in October 2005.

Like most of King's novels and short-stories, The Colorado Kid is set in a coastal Maine town, this one called Moose-Look. The author's narrative is fairly simple, three characters simply sit in a diner and talk about a mystery that has haunted the idyllic community for 25-years. The “Colorado Kid” is the nickname for a dead body that was found on the coast by two teens. The mysterious circumstances around his death is that the man seemingly appeared from parts unknown. No identity, no agenda, no murder. He simply died while eating.

While the narrative is rudimentary, King's signature storytelling makes it a compelling, pleasurable reading experience. In his conversational style, King makes you love these three characters with their witty charm and small-town mannerisms. Like any good crime-noir, there has to be an average character placed in extreme or unusual circumstances. That's the path the author takes only this character is dead. Learning how he arrived in this condition is a bit like the old locked-room puzzles. In fact, Stephen King's infatuation with Hard Case Crime comes from his love of crime-fiction, old mysteries and hardboiled novels. King name drops Rex Stout, Agatha Christie and even Murder She Wrote and dedicates the book to Dan J. Marlowe, an author King claims to be the “hardest of the hardboiled”.

The Colorado Kid is a quick, easy read but doesn't offer a traditional ending. Not to ruin it for you, but nothing is solved. It's the essence of the mystery, minus the mask being pulled from the killer's face. The novel would go on to loosely inspire the SyFy channel's television show Haven. Eight years later, Stephen King and Hard Case Crime collaborated again with Joyland, a superior novel that actually has an ending (although arguably not a very good one). At the time of this review, the publisher just announced a third King publication, an original novel called Later that is scheduled for March 2021.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, September 7, 2020

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 60

On Episode 60 of the Paperback Warrior Podcast, we discuss the legacy of the Hard Case Crime paperback imprint with loads of reviews of the good, the bad, and the missteps from the popular publisher. Also, Tom preps for a Dallas book-hunting trip with advice from Eric, and a crazy story from 1987 you won’t believe. Listen on your favorite podcast app, stream below or download directly

Listen to "Episode 60: Hard Case Crime" on Spreaker.

Friday, August 14, 2020

Mona (aka Grifter's Game)

Ten-time Edgar Award winner Lawrence Block rose to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s with his Evan Tanner and Matthew Scudder novels. It’s noteworthy that, like Donald Westlake, Block’s early literary work was soft-core porn titles published under pseudonyms like Sheldon Lord, Lesley Evans and Jill Emerson. The first book published under his own name was Grifter's Game. The book was originally titled The Girl on the Beach (Block explained that it had a Brewer/Williams/Rabe feel), but Fawcett Gold Medal changed the title to Mona when they published it in 1961. In 2004, Charles Ardai's Hard Case Crime imprint republished the book as Grifter's Game, as the imprint’s very first release.

The paperback introduces an adept conman named Joe Martin. As we meet Martin, he's arrogantly embracing the receipt of a hotel bill while secretly telling readers that he doesn't have the funds to cover it. After skipping out on the bill, Martin heads to Atlantic City where he steals a suitcase, and identity, from a man called Leonard K. Blake. After settling into a two-week stint at a posh seaside hotel, Martin's silver lining begins to tarnish – he discovers Blake had a lucrative amount of heroin tucked into the suitcase. Martin's hopes of running another successful con becomes even more convoluted when he meets the young, beautiful Mona Brassard.

Lawrence Block's writing - even at this early stage - is so tight and effective. The book doesn't possess an ounce of filler or padding. Instead, the compelling plot speeds along as Mona and Martin's heated passion intensifies. The convincing narrative offers an unusual balance beam for readers to walk – cheer on Martin's criminal behavior or hope that all of the characters face a downfall. With no distinct heroes, I was still invested in the characters’ slow, spiraling descent through robbery, murder and adultery. Block's ending gave me chills, a monumental feat considering it was originally published 60-years ago.

Mona is a masterful crime-noir that proved Lawrence Block was something truly special even 60-years ago. Today, his writing is just as good. Do yourself a favor and read this author. Become familiar with his work. Tell others about it. The affordable Grifter's Game version by Hard Case Crime is a must-have and a great starting point to embrace this author's bold and impressive crime-fiction.

Buy a copy HERE

Thursday, March 19, 2020

The Vengeful Virgin

With over 30 novels in a career that spanned 1951-1970, WW2 veteran Gil Brewer is considered a cornerstone of crime-fiction. His mid-era novel, “The Vengeful Virgin”, was originally published by Fawcett’s Crest imprint in 1958. Cited as one of Brewer's strongest works, Hard Case Crime reprinted the novel in 2006 with new cover art.

Jack Ruxton is a young owner/operator of a floundering television retail and repair shop. His life drastically changes the day he meets Shirley Angela, a primary caregiver for an elderly invalid named Victor. In a combination of desperation and hot-blooded lust, Shirley asks Jack to assist her in killing Victor. The payoff? About $300,000 that's been promised to Shirley in the event of Victor's passing. With a tumultuous tuition, Jack's life becomes an education on sex, greed, jealousy and murder. Does he make the grade?

With “The Vengeful Virgin”, Gil Brewer may have hit his high-water mark. The story's placement on Florida’s Gulf Coast parallels the author's own residence in sunny St. Petersburg. Like his contemporaries in Dan Marlowe, Day Keene and John D. MacDonald, Brewer makes use of a crime-fiction staple: the Florida waterfront cabin. It's here where the book reaches its violent crescendo, the crossroads of regret and guilt through the murky haze of hard liquor. Brewer's tale incorporates all of the genre tropes but still remains remarkably engaging and timeless. The paperback showcases the downward spiral of a man's ruin, lovers on the run and the inescapable, ever-consuming law enforcement dragnet.

In its utter simplicity, “The Vengeful Virgin” is a riveting masterpiece and should not be missed. It’s absolutely essential reading for fans of the genre.

Purchase a copy HERE

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Web of the City

Harlan Ellison (1934-2018) is mostly known for his work as a science fiction author and essayist. While going through U.S. Army basic training in 1957, Ellison wrote his first published novel called Web of the City that was initially released under the title of Rumble in 1958 when juvenile delinquent novels were a hot property. Hard Case Crime reprinted the novel in 2013 while also adding three of Ellison’s street-gang short stories to the volume.

Web of the City is a novel about a fictional New York street gang called The Cougars. Ellison claimed that he researched the book by going undercover in a Brooklyn street gang called The Barons using a fake name, and he served as “war counselor” for ten weeks before leaving. For the record, I think that story is somewhere between wildly exaggerated and complete bullshit. Nevertheless, he wrote a memoir about his supposed street gang internship called “Memos from Purgatory,” a 1961 release before fact-checking of outlandish claims was a thing.

In the novel, 17 year-old Rusty Santora declares that he wants to leave his position as president of The Cougars, but his former street gang members have other ideas. In order to prevent his desertion, gang members stomp Rusty down, and convince him that he’s good as dead if he doesn’t fall in line. Meanwhile, tensions are mounting between The Cougars and their arch-enemies, The Cherokees (the Brooklyn variety, not the Native Americans). As you may have guessed, a rumble is inevitable.

The juvenile delinquent genre tropes come at the reader fast and furious in this thin novel. You have the high school shop teacher with the heart of gold encouraging Rusty to leave the street life behind and pursue a career as an industrial designer. Rusty’s sister is following in his footsteps as an up-and-comer in The Cougars Girls Auxiliary (“The Cougie Cats”), and he’s terrified that she might never see adulthood. Some of the tropes are quaint - much of the drama takes place in soda shops and the gangbangers use switchblades and broken bottles when violence explodes at the teen dances.

Eventually, an actual plot emerges when gang activity hits close to home for Rusty. His sense of grief and street honor compel him to seek revenge, and Ellison treats the reader to a compelling vendetta storyline that keeps the tension mounting until the final climax. It’s nothing you haven’t read before, but this iteration is extremely well-crafted.

The fight scenes - and there are many - are vividly drawn and offset the corniness of the story. It’s a fun read if you’re looking for a throwback to a simpler time when guys were guys and dolls were dolls. I’m sure it was written as a serious sociological peek behind the curtain of an grim urban subculture devoid of hope. These days, it’s just a bit overwrought and a mostly entertaining time capsule. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2020


Shepard Rifkin was a New Yorker born in 1918 whose writing career began in 1956 as the author of several Western paperbacks. He shifted gears in 1969 to pen a grizzly police procedural mystery called “Ladyfingers” that remains available today as a $3 ebook. After much searching, I could find no record of Mr. Rifkin’s death, so my hope is that he is enjoying a spry and fulfilling life somewhere at age 101.

Rifkin’s best-known novel is his 1970 mystery (later reprinted by Hard Case Crime) titled “The Murderer Vine” set in the shadow of the American civil rights movement. The publication of “Ladyfingers” preceded “The Murderer Vine” by about a year and also displayed Rifkin’s interest in the American minority experience by casting our narrator and hero as NYPD Detective Pablo Sanchez, an American of Puerto Rican descent. After orchestrating a large heroin bust in East Harlem, Detective Sanchez is summoned to his boss’ office for a new assignment.

The Police Commissioner (a position historically held by Teddy Roosevelt) has received two small packages each containing a severed finger of an unknown woman. The quality of the manicure makes it unlikely that the digits were from indigent corpses used as med school cadavers. Where is the rest of the woman? Why send the fingers to the Police Commissioner without any demands? Despite a successful, but unremarkable, history as a narcotics officer, Sanchez is assigned the case, and he immediately feels that he’s over his head. His narration concerning his frequent missteps are quite funny.

Sanchez’s humble narration is a total joy to read and is in direct contrast with the cocksure heroes most of these novels feature. He’s a funny, self-deprecating narrator, and Rifkin’s excellent prose makes it all come together quite nicely. The supporting cast is filled with colorful New York characters, and every scene really pops. The investigative steps that Sanchez takes seem credible and realistic while still being entertaining. Fans of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct police procedurals will feel right at home with “Ladyfingers.” Recommended.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Baby Moll

Before he became a successful author of horror fiction, John Farris wrote crime and mystery paperback novels, including a 1958 release titled “Baby Moll” initially published by Crest Books (Fawcett Gold Medal’s sister imprint) under the pseudonym of Steve Brackeen. The book was re-released under Farris’ own name by Hard Case Crime in 2011 back when the company’s primary business was reprinting lost classic crime fiction titles with snazzy new covers.

Fishing supply store owner Pete Mallory is our narrator, and he’s engaged to marry a blue-blood heiress named Elaine. Pete has a secret past he hasn’t told Elaine that might throw a monkey-wrench in their wedding plans. You see, Pete used to run with a gangster named Macy who controls the rackets in South Florida, and someone has been bumping off members of Macy’s old crew one-by-one with maximum brutality and suffering. Macy needs Pete to come out of retirement, identify the killer, and neutralize him before the gangster boss gets a knife in the belly. The request is spiced with a dash of blackmail, so Pete isn’t in a position to decline. As such, it’s off to Florida for our narrator.

Of course, agreeing to this assignment from his former boss puts Pete squarely in the cross-hairs, and this leads to some vivid, violent, and visceral action sequences throughout the paperback. The core of the novel is Pete’s investigation into who is killing Macy’s inner circle. Is it a rival gangster looking to move into Macy’s turf? Could it be a grudge from the past coming back to haunt the aging racketeer?

The plot also revolves around the fact that Macy is getting too old to run his crime empire. A younger upstart - who may or may not be responsible for all the killing - is on the rise in Florida. Pete finds himself in the middle of all this tension and becomes acquainted with the women in each mobster’s sphere of influence. Evidently, crime bosses and their lieutenants have chronic girl problems. Presumably, one of these women is the “Baby Moll” from the cover, but the paperback was clearly titled by a Fawcett Gold Medal executive seeking to monetize 1958 America’s fascination with Bad Girls. As is often the case, the actual contents of the book doesn't jibe with the cover art (either iteration) or the title. Consider yourself warned if you were looking for a story about a Godfather’s Woman.

Overall, “Baby Moll” was a fast and compelling reading experience. It’s a well-told story written with great maturity despite the fact that the author was only 22 years old at the time of publication. Perhaps there were too many characters, but you can just make a list on your bookmark to keep them straight. Thanks to Hard Case Crime, you should have no trouble scoring yourself a copy with new and alluring cover art. However, the story inside is what really counts, and this one is a winner.


If you read and enjoy “Baby Moll,” you should check out these three other early crime fiction paperbacks by John Farris:

- The Corpse Next Door by John Farris (Graphic Books, 1956)
- Danger in My Blood by Steve Brackeen (Fawcett Crest, 1958)
- Delfina by Steve Brackeen (Fawcett Gold Medal, 1962)

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, November 18, 2019

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 20

Our feature this episode is Ed McBain’s popular 87th Precinct series coupled with Eric’s review of the first installment “Cop Hater.” Additionally, Tom covers Lawrence Block’s “The Girl with the Long Green Heart.” Stream below or on any popular streaming service. Download directly here (Link).

Listen to "Episode 20: Ed McBain" on Spreaker.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 13

We close out the month of September with a feature on Max Allan Collins and his series of books starring the hitman Quarry. Tom reviews "Quarry's Choice" from 2015 and Eric tackles the 23rd installment of 'The Butcher' series, "Appointment in Iran". Tom and Eric look back at the best of September and offer a sneak peek at October's lineup of reviews. Stream the show below or on any popular streaming service. Direct Downloads LINK Listen to "Episode 13: Quarry" on Spreaker.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Quarry #08 - The First Quarry

Esteemed author Max Allan Collins is a heavy contributor to the gritty, hard-boiled line of mystery fiction. His well-respected creations include Nate Heller, Nolan, Mallory and the subject at hand, Quarry. The Thrilling Detective blog cites Quarry as the first hired killer series, predating Loren Estleman’s Peter Macklin and Lawrence Block’s Keller. Collins released the debut, The Broker (aka Quarry), in 1976. After four more novels, and a ton of fan mail requests, the author began releasing series installments again in 2006.  Contrary to The Broker as sequentially the first Quarry novel by publication date, it isn’t the chronological beginning. Quarry’s fictional accounts begin in this origin novel, The First Quarry (2008), and seemingly ends with The Last Quarry (2006). But aside from those bookends, the series can be read in any order.

Collins introduces our killer on a frosty December night in 1970. Quarry is a 5’-10”, 155-pound average build and a former U.S. Marine sniper. His experiencing killing Vietcong for low money has now extended domestically with a new business model and booming sales potential. In a brief recap, the reader learns that Quarry returned home after ‘Nam only to find his bride under a mechanic in the sack. In the blunt revenge tactic, Quarry catches the mechanic under a car…and ruthlessly kicks the jack out. The murder is widely publicized, but Quarry somehow gets off. This book’s opening pages has Quarry camped in a new suburban neighborhood in Iowa City performing surveillance. The homework is an effort to kill a college professor named K.J. Byron, ultimately Quarry’s first job offer in this new career opportunity.

An assassination service headed by the name The Broker offers Quarry the assignment to kill Byron after learning about his cold-blooded mechanic murder in the media. The Broker receives kill-jobs from needy clients which are then commissioned to hit men. In what would become a staple of the series, The Broker simply calls our narrator “Quarry” with no indication if it’s meant as a first or last name. Regardless, this unnamed trait is the formula for the genre, evident in Dashiell Hammet’s Continental Op and Bill Pronzini’s Nameless Detective. To size up Quarry’s expertise, the first assignment is killing this professor. The client’s daughter, Annette, has been collaborating with Byron on a book in exchange for working her young pupil hips and lips. While this is enough to maintain any fatherly vendetta, the larger piece is a manuscript outlining mafia action Annette has witnessed in the family business. Killing Byron and destroying the manuscript is imperative…but proves to be an arduous task for Quarry.

In true hard-boiled fashion, this first-person narrative has the protagonist displaying the sturdy antihero archetype. He’s completely void of morality, often breaking conventional ethics and driven by self-interest. While bravado fueled novels like Don Pendleton’s War Against the Mafia defines rigid boundaries and a sense of right and wrong, Collins leaves Quarry dissolute; youth gone wild in all its moral erosion. Quarry sleeps with the client’s daughter and the professor’s wife, endangering an already fragile working relationship. He sucker-shoots, lies, cheats and steals to overcome his lack of physical superiority (noted in one scene where he can’t fight two African-American mobsters). As the elementary assignment becomes further entangled in scorned love and rival gangs, Collins is quick to remind us the web isn’t a complex weave. His quick summaries of busy, violent chapters are stylishly funny - “The good news was the girl wasn’t dead. The bad news was everything else.” Quarry is wicked and never out of morbid one-liners for the reader. He’s likable, but deadly, repulsive, but delightful and the “good” bad guy we all want to win.

For the lack of a better term…Quarry simply kills.

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Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Odds On

Before he was the famous author of bestsellers including “The Andromeda Strain” and “Jurassic Park,” Michael Crichton was a medical student writing books on the side under the name of John Lange. Before his 2008 death, he granted Hard Case Crime reprint rights to these early works, including his first published novel, “Odds On” from 1966.

“Odds On” is a heist novel in which three seasoned criminals conspire to rob the guests of a luxury resort hotel in Spain with the help of a machine called a “computer” that will take the guesswork out of the planning. These days, there’d be an app for that, but computers in 1966 were the size of a battleship and had the computing power of your toaster.

Here’s the heist crew:

- Bryan is the British thrill-seeking adrenaline junkie with the ability to drive women into an orgasmic frenzy with just one look.

- Miguel is a former U.S. Army soldier turned underground arms dealer. If you need some dynamite and blasting caps for a job in Spain, he’s your man.

- Jencks is the Massachusetts computer nerd who knows just which data input cards to drop into the giant IBM producing all the heist variables onto the magnetic tape and the green and white striped output paper.

As a 1960s period piece, this book is a total blast. Beyond the antiquated information technology, the novel is thoroughly politically incorrect - particularly in its treatment of women - and the main characters are vividly drawn archetypes of masculinity’s various flavors. Crichton’s pacing is perfect, and no one who reads “Odd On” should be surprised that the he later became one of the bestselling authors in the history of the written word. He had real chops even when he was a student.

The heist itself is well-planned and a large cast of supporting characters - mostly hotel guests - fill in pieces of the novel’s puzzle. There are lots of compelling little subplots happening with the other guests at the hotel that eventually tie into the larger narrative of the upcoming score.

Unlike the jobs of Richard Stark’s 'Parker' books, the computer-derived plan in “Odds On” is intricate and complex - exactly as you’d expect a fictional 1966 computer output to be. This makes for fun reading as the three thieves need to exhibit their flawless execution like a synchronized swimming routine. However, nothing ever goes as planned in a heist novel.

Another fun aspect of the paperback is the conceit that the heist crew must decide which guest rooms are worth robbing and which are better ignored. This appraisal of vacationing victims’ liquid assets is mostly done by having as much sex with fellow guests and hotel staff as humanly possible between arrival and go-time. This paperback has so many sex scenes that it makes a 'Longarm' story look like a 'Hardy Boys' hardcover. I’m not complaining, but the lusty descriptions also serve to pad “Odds On” from a novella length to a full novel. Crichton was a good writer, and he certainly knew his way around a hot scene, but you should know what you’re getting into if you’re the type of reader who tends to blush.

Other than the action between the sheets, there aren’t a lot of thrills in “Odds On” until the execution of the heist at the very end. The planning and casing of the hotel was compelling with a lot of relationship drama happening at the same time, so you’ll have to temper your expectations if you’re looking for a fast-paced adventure. Despite this, “Odds On” worked for me largely because Crichton’s plotting was very impressive, and the conclusion had a twist that I never saw coming. I intend to delve deeper into Hard Case Crime’s reprints of the John Lange body of work. Recommended. 

Buy a copy of "Odds On" HERE:

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Sinner Man (aka Savage Lover)

In 2016, Hard Case Crime re-released a lost Lawrence Block novel titled “Sinner Man” that was written in the late 1950s and rejected by paperback houses until it was published in 1968 as “Savage Lover” under his Sheldon Lord pseudonym. The story behind this lost work is pretty interesting and is addressed by Block in the afterward to the recent reprint.

The paperback opens with insurance salesman Donald Barshter inadvertently killing his wife during a domestic squabble fueled by alcohol and high emotions. Instead of calling the police and rolling the dice on a likely manslaughter charge, he decides to run away. Barshter splits to Buffalo and creates a new identity for himself as “Nat Crowley,” an enigmatic wise guy from Miami.

Barshter finds it liberating to shed his skin and don a a new personality with a more brash attitude than the insurance industry would permit. As Crowley, he fights, gets laid (fairly graphically, thank heavens) and begins to attract the attention of the local mafia and the Buffalo Police. After he falls in with a crime boss, he becomes enmeshed in regional mob rivalries and makes some difficult choices along the way. Inevitably, things get increasingly murderous as Barshter goes all-in with his new persona.

Reading Block’s earliest writing is such a pleasure because it’s so recognizably him. The dialogue is crisp and realistic and the narrator’s thought process is logical and well-reasoned - even when you need to suspend disbelief that a suburban insurance man can segue so seamlessly into the Syndicate or that his desire to do so is wise under the circumstances.

Block has become a better writer over the past 60 years as you’d expect, but the guy was never a hack. Fans know he’s got real gifts, and he had them back in the day, as well. “Sinner Man” is a stand-alone winner, and you won’t regret the time spent reading this thin rediscovered paperback. Highly recommended.

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