Something that’s always struck me as strange is how rarely authors of novels spend any time telling us about what their characters are reading. Assuming that authors read a lot themselves, and therefore know how important books are to people, how what you’re reading can color you whole day, it surprises me that characters aren’t more often thinking or talking about what they’re reading. It’s also an easy way—though with a danger of becoming too obvious—to give some signals about a character’s inner life or about larger themes the author wants to develop.
I bring this up because the two most recent Hard Case Crime novels I’ve read both featured characters reading book. David Dodge’s Plunder of the Sun (1949) follows an adventurer, Al Colby, who reminds me a bit of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee. He’s willing to work in the shadowier corners of the law, and he perpetually balances a definite tendency towards knight-errancy with a desire to get his share of whatever loot is legitimately on offer. In Plunder of the Sun, when a job couriering an unidentified parcel quickly gets him embroiled in a dangerous search for lost Incan treasure in Peru, Colby turns to William H. Prescott’s 1847 History of the Conquest of Peru to learn just what it is he’s fighting for. Prescott’s book, which, though of course quite dated, is still in print and regarded as a good introduction, and it plays a big part in Plunder of the Sun. From it, Colby learns not only of the treasure itself, but of the origins of Peru’s racial strife and exploitative class system; that knowledge ultimately leads him to stick his neck out on behalf of a couple of members of that exploited class.
Plunder of the Sun is exactly what I look for in a crime book: it pretty much skips the preamble and jumps right into the story, features vividly drawn locations and characters, and has good amounts of action and surprise. I mentioned that Colby reminds me of Travis McGee; he also reminds me a little of Ross McDonald’s Lew Archer. As with Archer, we don’t ever learn all that much about Colby or his background—the author gives us just enough to know, unquestioningly, that we want this man on our side.
I’ll write about the second Hard Case Crime novel tomorrow.