Friday, March 17, 2006

Crime is up

From Richard Powell’s Say It With Bullets (1953)
At the overnight stop in North Platte, Nebraska, Bill Wayne didn’t copy the other tourists in the party when they bought postcards to mail to friends. He was running a little low on friends these days. Once he’d classed five guys as friends, but they had picked up a habit of doing things behind his back, like shooting at it. The only wish-you-were here postcard he wanted to send them was a picture of a cemetery.

Say It With Bullets was the fifth book I've read in the Hard Case Crime series, and, like the others, it was pretty satisfying. People get shot, tough guys fight, mysteries are solved. Good stuff.

That said, it's clear why these books, mostly fifty or so years old, have until now been out of print. They're not brilliant books, and there are so many detective novels published every year that a bunch are bound to slip through the cracks and disappear. The Hard Case Crime books I've read so far have been fun mysteries, but none has been at the level of Chandler or Hammett or even Ross MacDonald. The plots are just a tad too thin, the characters just a bit less complex than in the better writers' books; none of these, in other words, is something you'd give a friend as evidence that there's a world of great mystery writing out there that he's missing. They're books for the already initiated, for people like me who enjoy hanging out in the slightly implausible worlds that these men and women find themselves stumbling into. They're for people who are willing to read several pages of fairly pedestrian plot in order to enjoy a description like this one from Say It With Bullets:
The town of Winnemucca was about six gas stations long by four taprooms wide. But the place had quite a hotel. It was sleek and modern and had a tiled patio decked with gay umbrellas around a swimming pool. He relaxed in his air-conditioned bedroom and studied the play of light on the swimming pool below his window and on the Tom Collins glass in his hand. Things were going to look brighter as soon as he got outside the Tom Collins and inside the swimming pool. He changed slowly into a bathing suit and went outside.

The first person he saw was Holly coming out of the water. She wore a two-piece white bathing suit and an air of assurance. That added up to more assurance than bathing suit. She had long slim legs and a flat stomach and hips that at one moment were all angles, like a coat hanger, and at the next were all curves. It was odd: he couldn’t decide whether she was a child or a woman. She walked over to a tall young man who had so many muscles that he must get tired carrying them around.

I would never be content reading exclusively crime novels of this sort, but I've really been enjoying getting two a month in the mail. That seems about the right frequency for me, and it's even better that I don't have to pick them—someone else, whose opinion I've already come to trust, does it for me.

So far, the two I've liked least have been the two books that received their first publication in the series—Stephen King's The Dakota Kid and Richard Aleas's Little Girl Lost. Neither was all that bad, but each had its problems. The problems with King's I've already gone over, while Aleas's book suffered from one of those plots that, if you were living it, you might not figure out, but that in a book is utterly transparent. On top of that, the novel ends with the protagonist—who in himself is the best part of the book to that point, a young detective whose inexperience leads him to make dangerous mistakes—making a morally unacceptable choice. He knows he's done wrong, but even so, neither he nor the novel seem to fully admit how wrong his decision is. It made me pull all the way back to questioning the author's ethics, and that's not where you want to leave a reader at the end of a mystery novel.

But I'll keep at the series. Two more should be here this weekend.


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