I'm not certain what the single sleaziest Hard Case moment is. Maybe it's when the short-con artist in Lawrence Block's Grifter's Game hooks his two-timing blond girlfriend on heroin to make sure she'll never run away again. Maybe it's when the part-time detective in Richard Aleas's Little Girl Lost marvels that "I hadn't realized you could still find strippers with natural breasts in New York, even if you went to the Bronx at eleven in the morning."
Or maybe it's the whole enterprise. The Hard Case Crime line--put out by rarely heralded Dorchester Publishing--mixes authentic '50s potboilers by masters like Lawrence Block and Ed McBain, unknown oldies by obscurities like Wade Miller, and pitch-perfect recreations by contemporary writers. Stephen King just published a book in the series, and they're running a contest co-branded with lad mag FHM to find a cover girl for an upcoming novel. It's a shame so few bookstores feature spinning racks these days, since these expressionist covers are designed to reach out and grab you--or at least undo your fly. Retro-garish, each one comes out in paperback only, graced with painstakingly pseudo-authentic covers. The copious servings of female flesh recall what was pretty much the hottest thing most boys could obtain for 25 cents a couple of
The Hard Case pulps are the brothers and sons--or better, the co-workers-on-
probation--of Jim Thompson, whose novels always rang with authentic lower-middle-class grime. Inside and out, they were books by and for people who weren't going to make it. This is production-line bleakness, noir routinized and spat out for audiences who can't slurp up enough tough guys, damned dames, etc.
Not that I'm complaining, exactly. It's more that there's something distressingly hermetic about such single-minded and one-note revivalism, like those shag-haired bands who churn out cover after cover of '60s garage songs. That said, there's something perversely charming to the enterprise as well: The sleaze in these books, with their two-timing women and charming heels one step ahead of the law, feels pre-globalization, pre-internet. It's personal, private sin, grasped at and sweated for by breathing humans, rather than impersonal corporate porn and violence downloading itself onto your cell phone.
So savor these for what they are. A strict adherence to genre conventions means that there's nothing in this series as determinedly zany as Carl Hiaasen or Tim Dorsey, nor as literarily wrenching as, say, David Corbett. And we're certainly not getting into Ruth Rendell territory. Those old paperback-original rules were, you soon
realize, pretty damn stringent: Every deal has a hidden trap, every offer a catch, every protagonist some itch he just can't stop scratching. And, of course, every hot blonde has an appetite that no man can satisfy for long.
Then why do I gobble them up? Sure, there's the occasional clunker. Aleas's one-liner, "the Internet eats hours like a kid eats popcorn" (from Little Girl Lost) isn't going to spin Raymond Chandler out of his grave. But mostly there's the enormous pleasure of having the same spot stroked again and again (and surely men in the days before pay-per-view used the books for that purpose, too). Fifties originals like Block and Miller hint at how typical Jim Thompson actually was. Turns out there were lots of guys around with literary aspirations and a talent for illuminating dark motives. And their fiction was no less effective for being professional rather than the demonic scream of despair that every biographer attributes to Thompson. The end of Block's Grifter's Game, for one, stands up to The Killer Inside Me in its open-eyed contemplation of the abyss.
And then there's the simple fun of tough talk spurting out the sides of your mouth, the same happy growl Dashiell Hammett transcribed in the very first lines of Red Harvest when he called Personville "Poisonville." Try this snappy little snarl, from Peter Pavia's Dutch Uncle: "For a guy with fairly good intentions three days out of stir, Harry was having no trouble racking up the felonies."
Call it limited, bleak, and one-note. For readers who crave this kind of thing, what could be higher praise?