Friday, September 30, 2011

Getting Off Doesn't Get 'er Done

Let's get this out of the way.  The title.  It's a double entendre.  You probably got that.  But unlike the brassy 1950s paperback mysteries that Hardcase Crime harkens back to, this story is so bald-faced, so completely unapologetic, and partly because of it so unredeeming, that it's less brass and far too much crass.

Apparently in his early days, Lawrence Block wrote a half dozen or so books using the pseudonym Jill Emerson (I Am Curious, Threesome, etc.).  For the time, they were pornographic.  I haven't read those titles, but my guess is that Getting Off beats 'em, hands down.

His lead, Katherine (Kit) Tolliver, is a victim of incest who blames not just Daddy, but Mummy, too.  With a slickness that belies her tender years, Kit sets up an alibi for herself after doing the bloody deed, leaving Daddy's corpse to take the wrap for a murder/suicide.  The rest of it is kind of pointless.  There's really no story.  Kit has developed a taste for sex and murder and Block binds the two together like a zip-tied hostage.

We are treated to scene after scene of her going from town to town and murder to murder, with every single one of her sexual conquests (and post-coital murders) delineated in what becomes excrutiating detail.  The only "connecting" thread is that Kit gets it into her head that she has to kill every man she ever slept with and let live.  It's a Daddy issue thing, but the list is fairly short because of all the guys she's bitten the heads off of.

Frankly, it's strange how untitillating it all gets.  The reader quickly becomes numb to the whole arrangement.  You don't have the tension and suspense that a thriller would give you if you believed for even a moment that any one of her conquests would live out the night.  Even when one does, it's simply shrugged off.  There's no thought at all that Kit's getting sloppy or sentimental or anything else.  It's just pack the bags and hit the next town and she'll catch him on the flip side.

Block writes the story as if it will appear in installments.  Every chapter or two he repeats the same information.  The number of men who are still alive after having slept with the slippery Kit Tolliver.  How her father seduced and raped her.  What it is that Kit does or feels while living her black widow life.  We hear it all, again and again.

While it's a well written story, and keeps you moving forward (kind of like a train wreck), there really isn't much of a plot.  Certainly no antagonist (since we're counting Kit as a protagonist here) to challenge the action.  A plot of some sort floats into view about 50 or so pages into the story (that of wanting to kill off all of her living bed buddies) but it is so very thin.  There's nothing that stands in her way; no blackmailer who knows her secret; no would-be victim who catches wise; no equally deranged competitor who threatens her "I'm not really a lesbian" paramour.  Kit has absolutely no trouble accomplishing her psychotic ends.  She's too smooth, too capable, and nothing catches her by surprise.

At the heart of the book is a big, heaping pile of impossible.  Not that something as terrible as Kit's childhood couldn't have happened.  Sadly, it seems to happen too often.  But in today's world of DNA, CC-TV, national databases, and other high-end forensics, Pretty Kitty would have been caught by the time the book opens.  She's casually careless as we start out on her cross-/double cross-country journey, but by the time Kit gets rolling on her impossible mission, she's downright asking to be caught.

Then two-thirds into it ─ after we've watched Kit set up her prey and then knock 'em down in an impressive array of murder methods ─ the book turns into a serial killer convention.  First there's the middle-aged suburbanite who offers rides to girls stumbling home in the dead of night.  Kit offs him with very little effort and escapes on the back of a Harley driven by a bearded faceless giant who asks nothing of her but gas money and a plate of grits for breakfast.  A little later Kit ─ who's been wondering if her black widow affliction would apply to women the same way it applies to men ─ runs up against a man and wife team of sexual predators who put me in mind of a similar murdering couple from the late Robert Parker's excellent Jesse Stone novel, Stone Cold.  Maybe it's just the italic font whenever the couple is on stage, but I could swear I hear eerie music in my head; something with a bit of scratchy violins and a few swipes at a bass or a couple of blows on an oboe.

Sorry ... wandering.

I know that I am / will be in the minority.  Apparently BookReporter, Booklist, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Celebrity Cafe, and others are absolutely in love with this latest entry from Lawrence Block.  I am not.

Block is a good writer.  He may have had a good idea with this subject, but somewhere along the way it became a writing exercise when it really should have stayed a novel.  He knows how to write novels; I've enjoyed many of them.  I'm sure the next one will ... have an actual story.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Here Comes Hard Case, Act II - New Old Style Crime Paperbacks

It's been about a year since Dorchester Publishing crumbled and seemed to drag partner Hard Case Crime down with it.  Now comes news that Hard Case is coming back -- big. 

Already, the first half dozen books are ready to go.  The line will lead off with a powerful new title by long-time crime writer Lawrence Block, author of the "Burglar," the "Tanner," the "Hit Man," and the Matthew Scudder series.  His entry is called Getting Off, and the cover calls it a novel of sex and violence.  The blurb starts out: "So this girl walks into a bar ... and when she walks out there’s a man with her. She goes to bed with him, and she likes that part. Then she kills him, and she likes that even better."  The cover alone should have a paper bag over it.  What a place to hide a carving knife.  Following over the next eight month are five more novels.  Less incendiary than Getting Off, perhaps, but no less titillating.

Two books originally slated for the old mass market paperback format will see the light of day finally.  Christa Faust's Choke Hold shows up in October.  It infuses porn stars with mixed martial artists and stirs it all up with Faust's Angel Dare character from the previously published Hard Case Crime novel Money Shot.  Also, old hand Max Allan Collins' adds to his Quarry series this September with the previously announced Quarry's Ex

In October another posthumous Mickey Spillane novel will be published, The Consummata.  By now anyone reading about Mickey Spillane will know that prior to his death he asked his long-time pal Collins to finish up some old projects.  This may well be the last of them.  The title alone has got me interested -- even if it weren't a Spillane book. 

In February next year another old hand, Donald Westlake, publishes his fifth Hard Case Crime novel.  This is one of his lost novels.  Unpublished in 1977, The Comedy is Finished takes an aging USO comedian and a radical political group left over from the '60s and slams them together in a story of kidnapping, violence, and not a little sex.

Following in April 2012 is a big surprise.  Robert Silverberg -- a science fiction Grandmaster -- steps into the dark streets of Hard Case Crime with Blood on the Mink.  A real pulp refugee is this one, having appeared in one of the last surviving pistol-hot story rags of that era like Trapped Detective Story Magazine or Guilty Detective Story Magazine.  The evocative period painting on the cover is enough to put it on top of my To-Read pile.

There's more, too, beyond April 2012.  For now, though, Hard Case is being mum about that.  It's not that they don't trust us.  There's just so much of this taudry stuff we can handle at one time.

None of these titles will be published in standard paperback.  Not even in the new-fangled "premium" (read: taller, more expensive) paperback package.  No, Hard Case has graduated to tradepaperback format, and some titles all the way up to hardcover. This is both good and bad.  Some of the titles will definitely deserve hardcover treatment. But there's something about holding one of these babies in your fist, a "cheap" paperback that you can dog-ear and toss on your nightstand, that just doesn't feel right in the more genteel trade format and certainly isn't conservative enough for a staid hardbound.

Regardless, the fact that publisher Charles Ardai was able to coax his imprint to rise like a Phoenix from the ash heap of paperbound publishing is a minor miracle.  He's to be lauded.  And supported.  I'll be buying my copies.  If you like good crime fiction from the past and the present you should buy copies, too.