CASTLE IN THE AIR by Donald E. Westlake

Castle in the Air
(Hard Case Crime Series #148)
By Donald E. Westlake
Hard Case Crime (Titan Books) — 30th March 2021
ISBN: 9781785657221
— Paperback — 208 pp.


A beautiful woman named Lida from the (fictitious) South African nation of Yerbadoro has come to ‘master criminal’ Eustache Dent with a proposition. Escobar Lynch, the president of her nation has been ousted in a coup. The former dictator faces exile to keep his life, but cannot bring any of the tremendous fortune he has amassed off exploitation of the masses.

Lida has inside information that Escobar has a cunning plan to get his riches outside of the country: smuggling the fortune hidden in the bricks of his castle, an architectural attraction that is being disassembled and shipped to Paris to be reassembled for a special international exposition. Lida wants her people’s money returned to the people, but is willing to split the treasure with Dent, the nefarious thief who might just be able to pull such a heist off: taking a whole castle.

The novel begins with Dent starting to assemble his international group of thieves needed to coordinate such a complicated caper. He enlists a top thief from England, France, Germany, and Italy and instructs them each to recruit goons to help them. Each team is to simultaneously steal the castle blocks (edifices) as they are transported en route to Paris. None of the criminals are too happy about half the spoils going to Lida and back to to Yerbadoro, but Dent assures the team leaders that they will be cheating her out of any money as soon as they are able.

There are a couple problems. First, none of the thieves share a common language, so coordinating proves to be quite a challenging task! A bigger issue is that no one knows with part of the disassembled castle will hold the loot until after all are separately stolen and searched. Once one team discovers their pieces of the structure hold the valuables, what’s stopping them from taking it all and running? Is there any trust among criminals? Or will the fear of being chased by their fellow colleagues be a deterrent against greed? When there’s so much money involved, none of them can manage to say no, and all simply push doubts aside.

As I started reading Castle in the Air I became reminded of Rowan Atkinson’s The Black Adder, particularly a first series episode where the Prince Edmund goes throughout England to enlist the most ruthless bandits and criminals for help in seizing the throne. Things don’t go as planned. After all, you can’t really expect criminals to play well together.

The novel proceeds similarly, with farcical takes on each nation’s thieves that includes silly sounding names and clichéd eccentricities, all for comedic effect. With a fast moving pace the story proceeds through all the introductions and then spends a chapter on the actual theft. Then the really zany aspects of the caper begin, the double, triple, and quadruple crosses between each of the international teams. The humor of idiots trying to deal with the language barriers gets amped up through this all, until things finally settle with the loot ‘won’ by one and the others discovering themselves with unexpected successes of a different kind.

Castle in the Air is a much lighter sort of fare from Hard Case Crime than normal, but that doesn’t make it less entertaining. Just in a different way. There is very little violence, more just inept bumbling. No one dies, they are just humiliated. There is also very little sex or femme fatale type interaction, and brief bits that are present are also mostly played for comedy by poking fun at the stereotypes, and making the playfully seductive language extremely corny.

The success of the novel then is really going to depend on the reader’s potential enjoyment of a silly caper romp. It’s a pulp crime version of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. It may not be as laugh out loud funny, but some chuckles may come. The other potential interest for Castle in the Air may come for fans of the author. The prolific Westlake first had this novel published in 1980 and it’s pretty much disappeared since then. Hard Case Crime does a great job reissuing forgotten works such as this. It’s certainly not Westlake’s best, or usual kind of offering, but it is a worthwhile quick read, a curiosity worth a rediscover by genre fans.


LATER by Stephen King

Later
(Hard Case Crime Series #147)
By Stephen King
Hard Case Crime (Titan Books) — March 2021
ISBN: 9781789096491
— Paperback — 248 pp.


Does Stephen King need his new novels covered or advertised by book reviews? Probably not. Are there potential readers out there who are undecided if his writing is something they’d be interested in? Probably few. But then again, there’s likely a fair number of people out there who’ve read something by King, and would read another, just not anything. Some may have read another Hard Case Crime by him and been disappointed, and now are hesitant to go for another. So, a review still seems worthwhile to me, and hopefully will be beneficial for some.

Though he’s written three novels for the Hard Case Crime label, this is the first of them that I’ve read. From what I’ve gathered, there weren’t many big fans of the first one, The Colorado Kid. The second, Joyland, fared with better word of mouth. In my opinion, King’s newest, Later, stands as a great success: a quick, entertaining read that should appeal to King and Hard Case Crime fans alike.

As a young boy, Jamie realizes that he can see people that no others can. He sees dead people. (Though as he points out to readers, not quite like the boy in that famous M. Night Shyamalan picture.) Jamie can see and talk to the recently deceased, but only for a short period of days before their voices and form dissipate and move on to whatever comes later for these souls. During their brief existence as a remnant these ghosts seem -usually – more emotionally detached from that which interested them before. But Jamie discovers that if he poses these ghosts questions, they are compelled to respond with the truth alone. This remains inexplicable to Jamie (and convenient for the plot, though I don’t complain too strongly over that.). But this fact makes Jamie’s ability potentially very useful to someone who might want to get secrets that people attempt to take with them to the grave.

Jamie’s mother struggles to stay financially afloat as a single parent in New York City through turbulent years in her profession as a literary agent/editor. As she tries to raise Jamie and come to terms with his abilities, she also tries to keep her fastidious and eccentric writer clients appeased and productive (profitable for her as well.) Aside from Jamie and her professional client relationships, she has a NYPD cop girlfriend who is a big fan of her most famous client. The problem is, her girlfriend is also a crooked cop, looking to profit off drug distribution.

As Jamie grows up he begins to appreciate just who his mother’s ‘good friend’ Liz actually is, and feels increasing responsibility to support his mother as she has so long supported him. He also gets to know his ability and overcome the trauma of seeing ghosts of people who have just died in terrible disfiguring accidents. But, Liz’s illegal activities and a serial bomber who is terrorizing the city are about to make Jamie’s supernatural talents into a greater vulnerability than he’s experienced or appreciated.

At various points in the book Jamie reminds readers that this is a horror story. As is typical for King (and lots of the horror genre in general) the worst monsters in Later are the humans, not the supernatural boogies. Jamie wants to be normal, unencumbered by the difficulty of looking at dead people. However as the first years pass from his youngest memories, his supernatural ability becomes something completely mundane. Most of the dead people look indistinguishable from those alive. The rare grotesque cases born from a violent demise get somewhat easier to deal with as Jamie knows what to expect and can prepare himself. He has even faced the threat of an evil demonic force and come out on top. The real danger of his abilities lie in how others will exploit him.

His mother understands this when she first realizes the reality of his abilities, and quickly teaches him to conceal his talents from all but herself, until she opens the ‘circle of trust’ up to include her girlfriend Liz, a woman of far greater moral weakness and desperation. Liz’s takes the King character role of the severely flawed person who makes the protagonist’s bad situation go too far, far worse. She also takes what works well as a horror novel and puts a justice/crime spin to it through a plot that reads familiar in the noir pages of Hard Case Crime. Some readers may feel that this horror/crime hybrid has a plot that really unfurls too late, at ~ three quarters of the way in. I didn’t mind one bit, because leading up to all of that hybrid action were pages and pages of great characterization.

It’s no secret that King writes children characters really well, particularly capturing that adolescent age of males going into their teens. With the voice of Jamie, King sticks with what works well. I did not want to put the novel down at any moment, I just wanted to keep learning about what Jamie would do with his ability – or how he would be used; what he would discover about himself; how his small family of he and his mother would make it out of the challenges that faced them. Just as King sticks in his wheelhouse with Jamie, he likewise stays with the familiar with the occupation of Jamie’s literary agent/editor mother. Being a lover of books and the publishing industry myself, I enjoyed this aspect and its nice references, particularly a sample NYT Dwight Garner review that made me emit a loud ‘hah!”

Other secondary characters King pens equally strongly. The elderly professor neighbor was another favorite of mine, most particularly for the role the amiable man plays in preparing Jamie for facing a particularly malevolent spirit of a serial bomber/killer. It may not have been King’s intention, but the scenes of this subject and interactions between the professor and the young boy reminded me of the beloved gothic plots and characters of John Bellairs: Professor Childermass and Johnny Dixon. In many regards the novel ended up taking on the flavor of a Bellairs YA novel – just with more foul language and drugs involved. Going along with these associations, the novel also references/plays with the classic ghost story “Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” by M.R. James. James was a major influence on Bellairs, so even if King is just directly alluding to James with Later, he equally indirectly alludes to Bellairs.

If you have liked things by King, and like classic ghost stories, this should be quick and enjoyable read. Likewise, if you’re just a fan of the general Hard Case Crime label noir, there is enough intersection with the classic motifs of that genre (crooked cops, drug running, monstrous crime bosses with perverse sexual proclivities, etc) to make it familiar and sate the appetite.

From page one Jamie – and I guess King – makes note of the frequent use of the title word ‘later’. I kind of hope that we will see more of Jamie later in future books. The character and tone just work too well to be finished with. Later on one day I may whistle for that, and see what comes.


SKIM DEEP by Max Allan Collins

Skim Deep
(Frank Nolan Series #9; Hard Case Crime Series #146)
By Max Allan Collins
Hard Case Crime — December 2020
ISBN: 9781789091397
— Paperback — 256 pp.


I’ve been a fan of the Hard Case Crime series for awhile now, and like the media-tie-in series that I follow, I’ve been trying to keep up with reading each of the new releases under its banner. On occasion there is one that I really don’t care for, but the majority I find wonderfully entertaining, in that light reading kind of way. They span a variety of the mystery/crime/thriller genre with both classic reprints, new additions to series, and completely new creations from modern-day noir writers. They all have that tinge of noir pulp that I adore, even when it comes across as dated.

Shamus-award winning and Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Max Allan Collins is probably a name familiar to anyone who reads the genre. Some bit of his prolific output in prose and graphic novels is likely familiar to an even broader swatch of the pop culture population. His Road to Perdition comic series was made into a film with Tom Hanks, and his Quarry novel series more recently appeared as a Cinemax TV series. I’ve read most all – if not all – of the Quarry novels from Hard Case Crime, and reviewed one here awhile back. I remember enjoying these to varying degrees, so the news of a new Collins novel was something to celebrate and anticipate.

Now, I’m less familiar with Collins’ Nolan series, featuring the Lee van Cleef lookalike professional thief Frank Nolan. I may have read Two for the Money, put out by Hard Case Crime in its early days (#5), but it’s too long to remember. The good thing is, it doesn’t really matter if you know anything about Nolan. or if you have read any of the previous eight books featuring him, to enjoy Skim Deep. At this stage the thief has gone straight, running a restaurant/nightclub in the midwest with his lover Sherry, a former showgirl. He’s made peace with mafia powers that he formerly clashed with, and has been allowed to step aside to settle into a civilian’s life away from crime. Deciding to take things one step further and marry Sherry, the couple leaves on a whim for a Vegas ceremony. There they stay at the French Quarter Hotel (a thinly veiled Orleans), where Nolan’s friend and former accomplice Jon now works, also having gone straight, in the dreams of opening his own comic shop. Unfortunately, Nolan’s former reputation gains unsolicited notice from some in Vegas, including an acquaintance who decides to use Nolan’s surprise appearance to further his own criminal plans. In the meantime, the matriarch of a criminal family sets her youngest son with a mission to kill Nolan and bring her his head, in retribution for Nolan’s prior role in her eldest son’s death. Even if Nolan and Sherry manage to make it out of Vegas alive, an assassin awaits the new husband and wife at their doorway.

Skim Deep suffers most from the execution of its plot. The set up is a good one, but it proceeds predictably. This might not be a real terrible thing for this kind of pulp read, if the plot could have included more twists toward those predictable conclusions, or if the antagonists of the novel showed any modicum of competence as threats to Nolan, Sherry, or Jon. Two separate threats emerge in the novel against Nolan, but the perpetrators of each are almost comically inept. They also both are unwilling antagonists, acting not out of any particular dislike of Nolan, but feeling forced into the situation for want of money – and ultimately for want of keeping a hot wife. The stakes never seem particularly high for the ‘good guys’ of the novel, and each threat becomes dispatched with little fanfare. Sherry does serve a role in the novel, albeit with dated pulp tones of misogyny (e.g. honor and obey the husband); she’s a cheerleader and emotional support for Nolan as well as representation of the one thing he loves, a person who only chose to be associated with crime indirectly through a relationship with him. On the other hand, Jon seems largely dispensable to what occurs in the novel. I gather he is a larger part of previous novels in the series, serving as a young, nerdy and loyal foil to the classic principled and noble tough guy that is Nolan. There’s unfortunately little in Skim Deep featuring that, or to give Jon purpose and import in events.

Despite these flaws, Skim Deep works with the simple fact that Collins can write. The noir tone and Nolan’s personality shine in the dialogue and descriptions from the former thief’s point of view. Further, even if the survival of the hero is certain or they never really feel in danger, the story still flows in the enjoyment of the righteous justice against those who dared think they could hurt the noble Nolan or the innocent Sherry.

Like any criminal protagonist that writers ask audiences to get behind (your Boba Fetts), Nolan may be a thief, but he has a code of honor and respect. He is not evil, nor does he compromise on principals to take the easier path or gain reward. The antagonists of Skim Deep may not be evil either, but they have weak resolves and lack self confidence. They fear losing things they don’t think they necessarily even deserved in the first place. They don’t want to accept what might come, and they will hurt others to selfishly benefit. Nolan may not deserve Sherry. But he knows that he has her love and respect. And she knows she has the same from him. If he did something of his own fault to change that, he would not destroy more lives for his shortcomings. The contrast between these character traits between the protagonists and antagonists is at least interesting in Skim Deep, even if it does then contribute to the sheer lack of potency in those villains as credible threats.

After all this I feel kind of silly trying to analyze the novel. Even with shortcomings, it is a fine entertaining crime read, exactly what I’m looking for when I crack open a Hard Case Crime, and as usual Collins makes even the predictable fun. If you are already a Collins or Hard Case Crime fan, you’re sure to love this too. Fans of the genre who don’t know Collins or the Nolan novels would still find this worth checking out. The opportunity to discover more of the Nolan novels is also coming soon, as Hard Case Crime will be rereleasing the earlier books in the series in the coming month; you could always wait to start with those too. I’m intrigued to meet the Nolan of his more wild days that brought him here to Skim Deep.


The Wrong Quarry, by Max Allan Collins

17797436The Wrong Quarry, by Max Allan Collins
Hard Case Crime #114 (Quarry Book 11)
Publisher: Hard Case Crime
ISBN: 1781162662
221 pages, paperback
Published January 2014
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

I’ve read a few of the Quarry novels featured in the Hard Case Crime series and they are always a hard-boiled pleasure. Rich pulp at its finest, Quarry is a captivating antihero despite his predictable qualities of a good conscious down deep, a pride in his work, and that weakness for women. Coupling his wit with sleazy, sinister characters up to no good, you have all the ingredients for a good noir.

Compared to other books in the series what is enjoyably unique about this one is just how far off course the character of Quarry is driven by being fooled into losing sight of who the bad guys are, and the truth behind the situation in which he find himself. Knowing that our protagonist assassin is on the trail of the ‘wrong quarry’ ruins the surprise of the existence of this final twist in the novel, however the interesting aspect for the reader switches from being about the existence of the twist to more about how Quarry is being fooled.

Overall another great entry into the Hard Case Crime series, a novel that takes retro pulp trashiness and delivers a pure little guilty pleasure for fans of the genre.

Five Stars out of Five