I wasn’t deep-digging, it just popped up in a search: Janet Rudolph’s excellent Mystery Fanfare (www.mysteryreadersinc.blogspot.com) way back in 2011 posted about fashion designer Hally McGehean debuting her wearable art collection at that year’s New York Fashion Week. McGehean’s designs included her Hard Case Crime Dress assembled from nearly 1,000 miniature reproductions of the line’s book covers. I’ll presume you had to rummage through your closet for the proper shoes and even a faux-fur, and of course, there was no word on whether the gun cost extra.
Pennsylvania artist and illustrator Laurence ‘Larry’ Schwinger’s full color illustrations made my recent used bookstore find of the 1997 Illustrated Junior Library hardcover edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula a real jewel. And all for less than ten bucks. His non-stylized, no-nonsense illustrations added a lot to the classic vampire tale.
Schwinger didn’t do a lot of horror work that I’m aware of. Or that much mystery/crime fiction material either. But he did some, and they’re nifty pieces, including a series of Cornell Woolrich 1980’s Ballantine paperbacks like I Married A Dead Man (at the top), The Bride Wore Black and The Night Has A Thousand Eyes, and more recently, some Hard Case Crime novels, including Spiderweb, Shooting Star, Witness To Myself and Robbie’s Wife.
I expected something akin to Affair In Trinidad or even Gilda, two cherished South American locale films noir teaming Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford. Well, The Big Hoax isn’t quite like those films, but is still a very intriguing piece.
This is a 2020 Hard Case Crime/Titan Comics 124-page hardcover edition of the 2001 graphic novel by Carlos Trillo and Roberto Mandrafino’s – the Argentine writer and artist, respectively. In what appears to be the post-WWII era, the banana republic of La Colonia’s corrupt regime is a notorious vice haven run by gangsters and ex-Nazis, populated by a devout but downtrodden peasantry and threatened by rebels. Disgraced former detective Donald Reynoso, a useless drunk when we first meet him, is hired by the lovely Melinda Centurion to retrieve some very compromising photos, which pit the duo against corrupt cops, revolutionaries and a ruthless and relentless hit man. Precisely why Melinda must get these revealing photos back is a whole other story, and what the titular “Hoax” is about.
Trillo’s story veers between bawdy humor and pure hard-boiled banter and action, frequently stepping back from the narrative for various characters to briefly narrate vital backstory. All of this is depicted in Roberto Mandrafino’s fluid and energetic artwork, which has a touch of caricature about it, but always stays focused on telling the tale. Even if it wasn’t at all what I first expected, I really got a kick out of The Big Hoax, but then, I’ve yet to be let down by any of Titan’s Hard Case Crime comics.
Paul Mann did the handsome retro-flavored cover art for Brian DePalma and Susan Lehman’s Are Snakes Necessary? profiled in a prior post. The Salt Lake City, Utah artist is an old-school illustrator employing a master craftsman’s skills with figures in a distinctly 1960’s/70’s era movie poster montage style. His work graces a number of the Hard Case Crime series novels, reviving the look of so many Robert McGinnis and other’s covers from the latter days of the postwar paperback era.
A few days have passed since I finished Brian DePalma and Susan Lehman’s Are Snakes Necessary? (Hard Case Crime, 2020), but I’m still trying to decide if I enjoyed it or (if this is possible) actually hated it. Since I blew through the book in a couple evenings, I’ll have to concede that it was a fast and fun read. But that concession doesn’t mean there wasn’t something about this novel that still bothers me.
Not really a mystery and only fitting ‘crime fiction’ if you set very broad genre parameters, Are Snakes Necessary? is a somewhat neo-noirish thriller of sorts, rolling out a seemingly unrelated cast of largely unsavory characters whose stories will intertwine through a series of sometimes logical and sometimes implausible coincidences. A sleazy political consultant hires a desperate fast food worker to set up an incumbent Senator with photos of a hotel room tryst. A failed photojournalist hooks up with a Las Vegas casino maven’s trophy wife. A flight attendant is horrified to learn her ambitious daughter has not only dropped out of college to join a political campaign but is joining the candidate (her own one-time lover) in bed as well. Throw in a retiring advice columnist, the Senator’s dying spouse and an abused Philadelphia housewife, and still everything will manage to come full circle as these characters’ stories converge in the novel’s closing mini-chapters, with multiple people dying (not always the ones who deserve it), some in Hitchcock-homage fashion (no surprise there, with DePalma at work).
In describing his writing style, Elmore Leonard famously said “I try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip”. Apparently, DePalma and Lehman took this advice seriously, but maybe a bit too much, and that’s what troubled me about Are Snakes Necessary? Oh, it’s an entertaining ‘page turner’. But is it really a novel? Frankly, I’m not sure.
The fact is, the book reads more like a story treatment, elaborate synopsis or an unproduced DePalma screenplay fleshed out into book form by Lehman. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, only that I’m pretty sure that if an unknown submitted this to an agent or editor, they’d be told to come back once they’d actually written the novel.
All that said, don’t be turned off by my own mixed feelings. The Hard Case Crime series rarely has a miss, even if it occasionally strays from its original mission of publishing long forgotten mysteries and hard-boiled crime fiction from the postwar paperback originals heyday and seems all too ready to go to press when there’s a well-known name with some marquee value to put on the cover (an understandable business decision). So, if you’d like a quick, entertaining read peopled by mostly unpleasant but-no-less intriguing characters, Are Snakes Necessary? will definitely keep you occupied for an evening or two. Arrange a curbside pickup from your local indie like I did, and see what you think. Is it a fast-paced plot-driven novel thoroughly purged of indulgent writerly fluff? Or is it an old screenplay dusted off by DePalma and finessed into something like a novel by Lehman?
Either way, it still is a fun read.
Think of this 2014 Hard Case Crime paperback as the perfect noir-pulp-hard-boiled enthusiast’s stocking stuffer, particularly since you can still get it new. In Daniel Boyd’s Easy Death, which is set during Christmastime in 1951, two tough guys are hired by a crime boss to rob an armored car. The heist comes off sorta-kinda okay, but a December blizzard screws up their getaway. It pretty much hinders the pursuing police as well, of course, but not so much the female park ranger who becomes involved.
Written by a former real-life cop, Daniel Boyd’s (a pen name, I think) prior novel was a well-received western. His Easy Death is a fast read, action-filled and with a surprising amount of dark humor. But more surprising still is that it actually manages to feel quite ‘Christmasy’ (in its way), even though it’s pure hard-boiled crime fiction throughout.
Like most Hard Case Crime novels, Easy Death is wrapped in eye-catching cover art, this one from the legendary Glen Orbik. Since the book came out less than a year before the artist’s untimely death at only 52, it likely was among his last works.
A mid-November issue of Publishers Weekly was stuffed full of interesting things, particularly two special features on mysteries, thrillers & true crime in, “Out Of The Shadows” by Michael J. Seidlinger, and “Open Wounds” by Bridey Heing. The thrust of those two meaty multi-page articles: Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl has sold nearly four million copies in seven years, during which time the mystery/crime fiction/thriller marketplace might feel overtaken by a glut of domestic thrillers helmed by similarly imperfect narrators. But the genre, its subsets and offshoots are an incredibly rich and diverse landscape of distinctive voices, inventive plot devices and milieus, so both Seidlinger and Heing showcased a wide selection of now-debuting and soon-to-arrive novels and true crime titles that aren’t necessarily Gone Girl derivatives (or even include ‘Girl’ in the title, which so many new releases have been doing). I was pleased to spot some I’d already ordered, reserved or even had in hand. And, just as pleased to see more in Seidlinger and Heing’s articles and the adjacent ads for books I mean to get, including:
After All by Robert Arthur Neff
Hard Case Crime’s Are Snakes Necessary by Brian DePalma and Susan Lehman, and Double Feature by Donald Westlake
Bonita Palms by Hal Ross
That Left Turn At Albuquerque by Scott Phillips
The Wrong Girl by Donis Casey: ‘The Adventures Of Bianca Dangereuse’
And for some non-fiction, The Beauty Defense – Femmes Fatales On Trial by Laura James
In the preceding post, Daniel Kraus’ new Blood Sugar from the Hard Case Crime line depicted a Good Girl Art pinup style Halloween witch on its cover, done by Salt Lake City, Utah artist and illustrator, Paul Mann.
In fact, Mann seems to be Hard Case Crime’s current go-to artist, if you check out their site. You can also go to paulmannartist.com to find out more about this talented artist and his traditionally styled work.
Snowing again this morning, looking more like December than October for the second day in a row, but a great big Happy Halloween to you too…
I’ve bought most of the Hard Case Crime line’s titles, from before and after their Titan acquisition. I may have a soft spot for the earlier releases reintroducing us modern readers to forgotten postwar paperback original crime classics, and for having the why-didn’t-someone-think-of-this-before bright idea to package them just like the rack sized pocketbooks they emulated…right down to the cover art.
Daniel Kraus’ Blood Sugar is still on order from my local bookseller and not in yet, whether because it’s sold so well that it’s already out of stock, or the early October publication date wasn’t met…or maybe the counter clerk’s just fibbing to me. Who knows? Clearly it won’t arrive before Halloween, though I did want it for a holiday read.
Apparently, Paul Mann’s fun cover art is a fooler, though. The line is called Hard Case Crime. But Blood Sugar isn’t a retro-pulpy mystery with a fetching witch up to some kind of criminal or even supernatural hijinks. Look closer and you’ll note that the illustration only depicts a calendar’s October pinup. The story actually deals with that most familiar Halloween urban myth (or is it just a myth?): A twisted recluse, aided by three outcast kids, seeks revenge on the neighborhood children with trick-or-treat candy boobytrapped with razor blades, broken glass, drugs and poison.
Chicago author Kraus is the cowriter, along with Guilermo del Toro, of the Oscar winning The Shape of Water. Let’s hope no quirky oddballs get any ideas this year after reading Blood Sugar. Which, it seems, everyone else might do before me.
Finally got my Ms. Tree trade paperback after a long wait. I’ve been pining for this book since March. This first trade pb, Ms. Tree: One Mean Mother re-introduces us to writer Max Allan Collins and artist Terry Beatty’s groundbreaking character, Ms. Michael Tree, widow of murdered cop Mr. Michael Tree (they shared first names), and an even more formidable detective than her beloved husband ever was as she goes to war with the criminal syndicate responsible for his death.
Bottom line: Ms. Tree (get it: Miss-tree…Mys-ter-y) appeared in 1981 like a breath of fresh (albeit hard-boiled and noir-ish) air on comic shop racks overloaded with the capes-n-tights crowd, delivering a woman detective who could mix it up with the bad guys but was still a three-dimensional person and not just a cartoon…and certainly not another spandex clad beauty pageant refugee. That she really is ‘one mean mother’ can be taken quite literally…how many bad-ass detectives pound the pavement when they’re pregnant? (In the comics, I mean.)
Both Collins and Beatty have worked on syndicated comic strips, and that’s evident in the artist’s work with its clean, simple narrative storytelling style, traditionally executed back in a pre-Adobe era. Intentional or not, the look is reminiscent of 1950’s era crime comics, and it really works.
One Mean Mother is a nice ‘n fat beautifully printed book from Titan Comics’ Hard Case Crime line, with cover art by Denys Cowan, an introduction from writer Collins, an afterword titled “Ms. Tree (Almost On Film)” about the character’s screwed up path from comics to television (which never worked out) and a bonus 1994 Ms. Tree short story, “Inconvenience Store”. Looks like Titan’s Hard Case Crime line isn’t done with MWA Grand Master Max Allan Collins and Terry Beatty’s Ms. Tree yet, with Book 2: Skeleton In The Closet due in 2020 and what looks like more releases still to follow. I sure hope they come through.
Dial back to my March 2019 post about Max Allan Collins, Terry Beatty and their pioneering character, Ms. Tree: