(Hard Case Crime Series #153; Nolan Series #s 5 – 6)
By Max Allan Collins
Hard Case Crime (Titan Books) — 15th March 2022
ISBN: 9781789091434 — Paperback — 346 pp.
The reprints of Collins’ Nolan series continue from Hard Case Crime, with another two-for-one packaging featuring the ‘retired’ titular thief and his young heist partner Jon. The series has had a complicated publication history, often out-of-print and relatively difficult to track down. This volume collects the fifth and sixth novels in the series, first published in 1982, Hard Cash and Scratch Fever. Even more-so than previous double collections from HCC, these two novels fit exceptionally well together, linked by a ruthless femme fatale antagonist. Tough Tender simply reads like one complete story in two acts.
The set up for these episodes in Nolan and Jon’s lives follows a standard format, also frequently used in the Quarry series: The criminal protagonist is trying to live a retired life, but previous deeds pull them back in. Usually what brings them back to crime is either the prospect of a really big paycheck, or someone coming out of the woodwork to kill them. The first part of Tough Tender, Hard Cash, offers a slightly different tactic: blackmail.
An executive at a bank that Nolan and Jon robbed previously in the series shows up at Nolan’s restaurant with an offer for another heist, this time with inside cooperation. Nolan wants no part in the risks or the executives eager ignorance. Facing the choice of either going along to hear more about the executives plans or killing him to prevent him from turning Nolan in, Nolan opts for restraint, taking Jon for a meeting to hear more about the heist plan, and the executive’s threats. There, they learn that the real drive and brains behind this plan is a sultry and dangerous woman name Julie, who has the married executive wrapped around her finger in adultery. Still not liking any bit of being ‘forced’ into a heist, Nolan and Jon choose to proceed, cautiously, expecting a double-cross.
In Scratch Fever, the second half of Tough Tender, Jon has returned to his life of comics and rock and roll, while Nolan is back at his restaurant/motel. As Jon’s band performs in a local backwoods music venue, he is shocked to see femme fatale Julie among the audience, a woman that he and Nolan thought was dead. Even worse, her deadly regard notices him. Jon manages to get a message of warning to Nolan, but not without also become captured by the jaded girlfriend of one of Jon’s old flames, a confused girl who has become ensnared by Julie’s destructive sexual allure.
Of the two components, Scratch Fever works best, offering a more unique scenario within the series than Hard Cash and focusing equally on Jon as on Nolan, in alternating chapters. Hard Cash also suffers from poorly inserting the Comfort family series antagonists into the plot. Though Jon shot the Comfort patriarch in the previous entry to the series, the old coot managed to survive, and is off with one son to get revenge on the guys who stole from them. The plot line only becomes possible due to a stupid slip up by Nolan and Jon in the previous novel, and Collins’ “oh, he actually wasn’t really dead!” ploy. This would be forgivable, but the Comfort plot in here really goes nowhere, with an evaporating resolution by mere chance as this B plot intersects with the main heist plot.
The other aspect that reads off in these novels would be Nolan and Jon’s automatic reaction to Julie (from first meeting) as “that bitch”. There’s a harshness to Nolan in particular that does not play well at all, particularly in 2022. Similarly, Jon’s relationship with the lesbian girlfriend who kidnaps him in Scratch Fever plays out in an unbelievable way that in today’s age would have to be depicted more delicately and realistically.
Then again, these were written in the 1970s – published in the early 1980s – and they are noir pulp. So readers who go for this fare shouldn’t be entirely surprised or put off even when things run counter to contemporary sensibilities or reader beliefs. The fact is that Tough Tender serves as a solid continuation to the Nolan series. Still not as refined or engaging as the Quarry novels, but essential for fans of Collins’ neo-noir and the HCC label.