Friday, June 5, 2009

Fade to Blonde -- Max Phillips
Hard Case Crime, #2

Joining the Hard Case Crime book club was the best $6-a-month investment I made last year. (It was also the only one I made, but I'm confident that if there'd been others, it would still be on top.) Sometimes the books are reprints with awesome new covers, sometimes they're original publications, some of them are stronger pieces of writing than others, but they've all been entertaining. They make me happy. If you enjoy the crime genre and aren't offended by the un-PC (especially in regards to how the ladies are treated), they're well worth a read.

Since I jumped in somewhere in the late-40's, I have, of course, been worrying about what I missed. So I decided to go back to the beginning and read their releases in order. Or as close to in order as I can.

Fade to Blonde was a Hard Case original, and it won the 2005 Shamus Award for Best Paperback of the Year. It's a pretty familiar setup, with a more-striking-than-classically-beautiful woman approaching the narrator and spinning a story about being in danger and needing help, leading him to an underworld of drugs, gangsters, prostitution and pornography. The tension, for me, came from never being quite sure how it would all play out -- Ray Corson is aware from minute one that Rebecca isn't telling him everything, but are her omissions (or are they just flat-out lies?) going to get him killed?

While this book got what looks to be stellar reviews across the board, my feelings were a little more mixed. For the first half-to-three-quarters of the book, I had a hard time believing that Ray Corson would've gotten as involved as he did -- I never believed that he cared much for Rebecca, though I think I was supposed to, and even if his motivation was different (say, simple curiosity), I felt that he was too smart to stick around. There were moments when his temper took over, when he made a decision to do something even though he knew that it would come back to slap him, but those moments were different. They worked for me. There was a distinct turning point where my issues dissolved and it finally made sense to me for him to go all-in, but that was so far into the story -- there had been so many moments that I felt he would have just walked away -- that I felt it was still a problem.

What really worked for me was his voice. Ray Corson was bright and likable and great with the one-liners and literary references (he's an aspiring-but-pretty-much-failed screenwriter) without laying them on too thick:

His suit was what mine wanted to be when it grew up. My suit was kidding itself.

By the time I got there, the bartender had another gimlet waiting. I'd be doing well to get home that night with my liver still attached.

I laid them out in a row and started noodling names and facts and connecting them with arrows and generally smoking my meerschaum and playing my violin.

If you want more, there's a sample chapter up at Hard Case's site.

I also really enjoyed, for the most part, the secondary characters -- Mattie and L. R. Bellinger, especially. And the Hollywood setting was great. Even with the aspects I found problematic, I found myself thinking quite often of Chinatown, actually. Which is in no way a bad thing.



1. Grifter's Game, Lawrence Block
3. Top of the Heap, Erle Stanley Gardner


(cross-posted at Bookshelves of Doom)

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