TOUGH TENDER by Max Allan Collins

Tough Tender
(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.


CALL ME A CAB by Donald E. Westlake

Call Me a Cab
(Hard Case Crime Series #152)
By Donald E. Westlake
Hard Case Crime (Titan Books) — 1st February 2022
ISBN: 9781789098181
— Paperback — 256 pp.


An easy-going New York City cab driver named Tom picks up a fare for JFK airport who seems anxious and out-of-sorts. Engaging in some small talk with her, Tom learns her name is Katherine and that she is headed to the airport to fly to California to give her longtime fiancé Barry a final decision in person on the marriage. She has hesitated on fully committing to the union; though he has been patient, he has now given her an ultimatum. If only she had more time to just think, to figure out the source of her indecisiveness, and find a confident answer within her heart.

Katherine asks Tom what the cost would be to drive her to California in the cab. This would give her time to calm her panic and figure things out in isolation. She has the money; Tom has the time; an arrangement is made. Their journey begins. Along the way a close friendship builds between Tom and Katherine through their conversations and the events that go along their journey across country. They learn things about one another, and themselves. Ultimately, Katherine finds her answer.

Call Me a Cab has an exceptionally simple plot, with two simple characters. But, the interactions between Tom and Katherine are fascinating and refreshing, with flowing language from Westlake that probes psychology and human emotions with humor, playfulness, and respect.

It’s arguable that the novel doesn’t fit into the Hard Case Crime press mission or genre fold. However, I don’t remotely care, and I don’t imagine any other fans of the HCC series would either. Unlike all the other Westlake titles in the HCC library, Call Me a Cab has no crime in it at all, nor really any mystery. It does contain the element of suspense, but it’s a romantic suspense, a suspense of two characters who gradually share more of a bond making efforts to not consummate feelings of attraction they may begin to feel, because of Katherine’s relationship with Barry and because of her vulnerability in a state of uncertainty and confusion at figuring out herself. Interestingly, grappling to suppress and comprehend her friendship with Tom leads her to eventually realize the source of her hesitance with Barry.

I feel as though this is a really hard novel to review or write about, particularly with details because of its simplicity. It’s probably best if I simply wrap it up by stressing how satisfying Westlake’s deliberate and elegant prose is to read here. The reader falls into companionship with Tom and Katherine and those who have fun ‘shipping’ fictional characters who have that connection that feels so perfect, will adore this too.

Westlake wrote Call Me a Cab, it seems, as an exercise in telling a caper story without a caper. I would say that equally it is a romance story without any physical romance. With offerings like this, I’ll always support HCC willingness to stray a bit from their usual fare.


QUARRY’S BLOOD by Max Allan Collins

Quarry’s Blood
(Quarry Series #16)
(Hard Case Crime Series #151)
By Max Allan Collins
Hard Case Crime (Titan Books) — 22nd February 2022
ISBN: 9781789096682
— Paperback — 224 pp.


Quarry’s Blood is a quick and satisfying pulp read, with Collins infusing his latest novel with fresh blood (yes, bad pun groan) to invigorate the aging Quarry series. I first saw this title in the Hard Case Crime catalog and thought, oh dear, another Quarry novel? And then I was even more confused to see that it was set in 2021, well after the events of The Last Quarry, which had been meant as the chronologically final story of the former contract killer’s life. I read how HCC editor Charles Ardai talked Collins into writing this entry, read the novel, and then was very glad that Ardai succeeded.

If, perchance, you haven’t read a Quarry novel, or if you haven’t seen any of the brief Cinemax series based on the series, here’s the gist of the character. A Vietnam veteran trained as a sniper, the man later dubbed Quarry returned home after the war to find his wife had been cheating on him with another man. Quarry killed that man, but circumstances led to him legally getting off from the crime, and to be recruited as a hitman for a powerful ‘Broker’ with mob connections, a man in charge of delegating regional contract killings. The Broker names his talented new recruit “Quarry” for the man’s rock solid appearance and hollow emotional core, and Quarry quickly becomes one of his best hitmen. Until the Broker begins to worry about Quarry and betrays him. Quarry goes rogue and takes care of the problem, procuring a list of jobs in the process. Quarry begins to go to people on the hit list and offer his services to get rid of the contract killers after them, and then also to try and find out who ordered that hit and take them out too. As he ages, he eventually settles for one last job with a big payout; he ends up with retirement with a woman he loves.

In Quarry’s Blood, the former hitman is still living the quiet, retired life, mourning the recent loss of his wife to COVID, but continuing his daily routine as he approaches seventy years old. This calm routine changes when a true crime writer, Susan Breedlove, arrives knocking at his door with questions. Susan has written a best-selling book that investigated and exposed many events from Quarry’s past, including what occurred with the Broker, and she is looking to write more, with more details and the hope of cooperation from Quarry, the man she knows far more about than anyone should. Even more disturbingly, soon after her visit, a contract killer and his backup make an attempt on Quarry’s life. It’s reasonable to Quarry to assume these two events are connected.

There are two things to the aptly titled Quarry’s Blood that make it succeed in terms of its plot. First, it is now a case where Quarry is the contract. He has to both protect himself from being killed, while also investigating to try and figure out who would want him dead and how it relates to Susan’s book/research. And, though he is in remarkable shape for his age, he is certainly not in top form for the kind of exertion that investigation might entail. Second, is the character of Susan: who she is and how that relates to Quarry and his past. The person who put out the hit on Quarry, and their secret reasons for doing so also pull from the core of Quarry’s past and nicely parallel his relation to Susan.

It probably wouldn’t be too much of a spoiler to be more detailed, but I’m going to opt for keeping it all a surprise. The novel begins with three chapters set in the 1980’s, so that by the time we get to the present and Susan arrives, things should already be clear to readers. Thankfully Collins doesn’t take too long to dance around things either, leaving the real mystery of the novel to who is targeting Quarry – and even moreover why.

Collins’ writing is exactly what one would expect from this master of neo-pulp. The text and dialogue flow crisply, with bits of playful trashiness one would expect from the genre. The novel is also preceded by some quotations, one of which is a definition for ‘meta’. Indeed, there are many self-referential nods in Quarry’s Blood, including mention of the TV series and the idea that Quarry himself writes the pulp Quarry series that everyone thinks is fiction.

Collins clearly has fun writing this unexpected chapter in Quarry’s story, and he succeeds in making it unique enough from previous entries to warrant its telling. Susan is an impressive addition to the series, and I could see things continuing in spin-off series featuring her. In fact, I hope Ardai pushes strongly for that.


FIVE DECEMBERS by James Kestrel

Five Decembers
(Hard Case Crime Series #150)
By James Kestrel
Hard Case Crime (Titan Books) — 20th April 2021
ISBN: 9781789096118
— Hardcover — 432 pp.


This is perhaps the best Hard Case Crime novel I’ve yet read, and it is among the best novels in general that I’ve read in the past year. I don’t seem to be alone in this assessment, as the Mystery Writers of America just announced Five Decembers as the winner of the 2022 Edgar Award for best novel a few days ago. James Kestrel is a pseudonym for Jonathan Moore, whose previous novels are now going onto my to-read list with that priority of engaged excitement. Here’s why you might enjoy this novel as well, even if you are not a regular reader of the Hard Case Crime imprint.

Five Decembers opens with a set-up of plot and atmosphere that smolders with a familiar intensity of pulpish noir suspense. Former Army officer Joe McGrady now works as a Honolulu city police detective, perceptive and dedicated, though resented and unappreciated by many of his colleagues, particularly his boss. But, as Europe and the rest of the world beyond begin to churn into global conflict, he lives content on the island with his job and a woman he loves.

The trajectory of Joe’s life change when he is assigned a gruesome double homicide that ends up having links to the family of the Admiral who heads the Naval base at Pearl Harbor, and to Japan. After a shootout near the scene of the murder with one of the killers, McGrady ends up on the trail of a professional killer across the Pacific, eventually reaching British Hong Kong. The chaos of World War II and an attack by Japan on Hong Kong make tracking a dangerous killer the least of McGrady’s worries, as his investigation and pursuit quickly turn into becoming a prisoner of war.

The adventure of Five Decembers stretches across five years (hence the title), in an epic story that combines elements of crime fiction, historical war drama, romance, and conventional literary explorations of cross-cultural contact. Clandestinely freed from execution within a Japanese prisoner camp by one of his captors, Joe McGrady must spend most of the war in hiding within a Japanese home. The war’s end finally gives him the freedom to leave and resume the hunt for the killer that began his journey. But how have the secluded years living with a Japanese family changed him, and what is left for him to return to?

Five Decembers starts as hard boiled crime, and eventually returns to it. But the majority of it serves as something much more profound and heartbreaking, yet just as entertaining, just as fluid with dialogue that pops and grittiness that touches the soul. Even in the moments of the novel without ‘crime’ and the mystery plot, the tone of the novel stays consistent with the genre.

The hard boiled or film noir style is largely defined by the cynicism in its characters, brought on by cycles of violence and despair. Bright rays of hope that appear, and dreams of a happy future, become clouded over by gruesome reality. War does this as well, as it overturns the lives of ordinary people, people who may even be the enemy, but who are at their heart still good. Systems destroy even the good, particularly the good.

McGrady finds himself prisoner to a life he never intended, could not have chosen. Yet somehow it becomes a life of beauty and tranquil peace. Of happiness. Just as the outbreak of war causes chaos and disruption, so too does the end of these conflicts, as others coming into power and enemies are not just defeated, but also punished. The end of war is not a new peace. It’s a return to the same cycles of violence, with different players and stages. McGrady’s life is again disrupted and he’s forced to again find his place in the world.

Five Decembers is a cinematic novel, one that I could easily seen adapted into a movie that was on one hand action/suspense, but also art house, using the familiarity and entertainment of genre conventions to probe the human condition in one common man across a swath of time. It’s a complex novel that I would enjoy reading again, and I believe that a lot of people across reading interests would find rewarding.


DOUBLE DOWN by Max Allan Collins

Double Down
(Hard Case Crime Series #149; Nolan Series #s 3 – 4)
By Max Allan Collins
Hard Case Crime (Titan Books) — 20th April 2021
ISBN: 9781789091410
— Paperback — 352 pp.


Even mediocre Max Allan Collins provides more entertainment value than much of the crime fiction that is out there, and with this volume one gets two episodes from the neo-noir series featuring the professional thief Nolan for the price of one. Double Down is a recent Hard Case Crime reissue of the third and fourth novels of Collins’ Nolan series, Fly Paper and Hush Money. Originally written back in the ’70’s, but not published until 1981, these novels have since been often out-of-print. This release by Hard Case Crime follows their publication of the final Nolan novel (#9, Skim Deep) a few months prior, which I reviewed here previously.

In Fly Paper, Nolan has settled into retirement from pulling jobs for the Detroit mob, surviving old enemies to manage one of organized crime’s legitimate businesses, the Tropicana hotel and nightclub outside Chicago. But Nolan receives a call from his protégé Jon that sets the pair up for a heist of some easy money from a member of the Comfort family, a crime clan who continue as a principal antagonist to Nolan in the series. Meanwhile, a man plots the daring hijacking of a flight for some ransom money. Unfortunately for this man, he has chosen the flight that Jon and Nolan are taking after netting their easy score.

Fly Paper is an odd entry to the Nolan series compared to the others I’ve read. The heists and crimes come down entirely to happenstance, showcasing the Pasteur quote “Fortune favors the prepared mind.” It all ends up feeling like a cakewalk, with Nolan and Jon barely breaking any sweat. Additionally, the novel has the feel of being two stories set in one (compounded here with Fly Paper being paired with another novel.) There is the one plot with the Comfort family, which easily resolves, and then there is the plot inspired by the real history of “D.B. Cooper” and his hijacking of Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 305. I imagine Collins read the news stories about this stunning event back in the early 1970’s and thought, hmm, I wonder how that would’ve gone down if a real bad ass were on board at the time to steal from the thief? Beef that concept up with a set-up to get Nolan on the plane, and print it.

Hush Money takes place concurrently with Fly Paper, and immediately following. Someone in Des Moines is killing business associates of organized crime, and the Mob thinks that Nolan may be the best person out there to find who is responsible and cleanly make it end. With the amount they offer him, how could Nolan turn it down, especially with Jon eager to help? It takes a good third of the short novel for Nolan and Jon to even appear, so a good chunk of Hush Money involves the killer, the targets, and their families during the time when Jon & Nolan are making bank off the Comforts and an odd plane trip home. Again, this gives Hush Money the feel of being two stories that merge into one. The plot feels superior to that in Fly Paper, though, with less of a reliance on happenstance, and without the DB Cooper gimmick going on. It’s also interesting to see Nolan work in a role of mediator where he ends up not ever having an ‘enemy’ or ‘evil person’ who he has to go up against for survival.

Neither Fly Paper or Hush Money are ground-breaking or remotely compare to the best noir that Collins has produced. But, regardless, he can write. Nolan shines with style, wit, and a charming elegance that imparts that compulsively readable pulp crime vibe. Jon has more naiveté, but an earnest drive to learn and find success. The stories and dialogue smoothly flow to give a simply entertaining diversion of crime fiction, bread-and-butter of the Hard Case Crime line that doesn’t demand much, but also doesn’t insult or fail.

Hard Case Crime is in the process of publishing additional works by Max Allan Collins, including titles featuring his character Quarry and volumes from the Nolan series that follow this one. The character of Nolan is inspired (at least in part) on a thief from Donald E. Westlake’s oeuvre writing as Richard Stark, and Hard Case Crime is likewise amid several Westlake releases. Look for reviews of those releases coming ahead, and check the novels out if you’re a fan of this pulp crime gold.


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