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Book: “The Woman Chaser,” by Charles Willeford

“The Woman Chaser” (1960) is not a good title for this book. The book is not about chasing women, though Richard Hudson does some of that. But he’s really chasing success, or self-actualization.

Richard Hudson comes to LA to start a used-car dealership for his boss in San Francisco. Hudson is great at selling cars, and he experiences success pretty quickly.

He also moves in with his mother and her new husband, Leo, a washed-up film producer who is 20 years younger than she is.

Richard, restless, decides to launch into the film business. He’s got an idea for a movie, which he wants to write and director and everything else–and Leo’s inside knowledge puts him on his way.

“The Woman Chaser” is told first-person by Richard Hudson, whose ego and delusions of grandeur come through loud and clear.

There is no real plot–no mystery to solve, no destination to arrive at. In that way, the book is similar to Willeford’s “The Pick-up,” or Jim Thompson’s “The Grifters.” You’re just carried along as you follow Hudson from one thing to another, and eventually the book stops.

I read this book not because of the title, but because of the author. Willeford is good. I enjoy reading his work. “The Woman Chaser” is the fifth Willeford book I’ve read.

Willeford was born in Arkansas, but grew up in Los Angeles. In 1935, he began a 21-year stint in the military, serving in various roles. During World War 2, he was a tank commander who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and he earned the Silver Star, Bronze Star for outstanding bravery, and Purple Heart. He left the military in November 1956, a few weeks after I was born. But by then, he had already published three novels–in 1953, 1955, and 1956.

A high school dropout, after leaving the military Willeford worked as a boxer, actor, horse trainer, and radio announcer, and studied painting in France for a while. Quite the Renaissance Man. He entered college in 1960, and by 1964 had a Master’s.

Willeford’s most famous novel is “Miami Blues” (1984), the first of five books featuring Detective Hoke Mosely. I read “Miami Blues,” and really need to get to the others. I just think he’s an excellent writer who doesn’t adhere to any formulas. Willeford died in 1988, but left some good reading behind.

Previous Willeford reviews: “Miami Blues” and “The Cockfighter,” and “Pickup”, a book whose ending I’ll never be able to forget.

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Books: Two by Charles Willeford

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This weekend I finished two books by Charles Willeford. Both are worth recommending.

Willeford, who died in 1988, is a very interesting writer. He was a tank commander during WW2, and won the Silver and Bronze stars and a purple heart. As a writer, he didn’t plot things out before starting. Rather, he got the seed of an idea and started writing without really knowing where he was going.

I’ve read four books by Willeford now, and all are totally different.

  • The Burnt Orange Conspiracy (1971).
  • Pick-Up (1967).
  • Miami Blues (1984).
  • Cockfighter (1972).

In “Miami Blues,” his most well-known book, he created the character Hoke Mosely, a police detective. He wrote several other novels starring Mosely, and I’ll need to read them, because I like him a lot. And the Miami locale adds all kinds of color. 

“Cockfighter” is narrated first-person by Frank Mansfield, a well-known chicken-fighter in the south. This book will tell you all you could ever want to know about cockfighting–all the tricks and techniques, how to train and feed chickens–really, everything. And you probably don’t want to know anything about cockfighting. 

A few years before, Mansfield shot off his mouth and, as a result, ended up losing his chance for a championship. Angry at himself, he took a vow of silence: he wouldn’t talk until he won that championship as the best cockfighter in the south. So throughout the book, the main character doesn’t talk–only points, gestures, and scribbles notes. But this being first-person, we’re privy to Mansfield’s thoughts. Everyone else thinks he just lost his voice somehow; they don’t realize he’s voluntarily not talking. This makes the book extra interesting.

Mansfield starts out down on his luck, and must build back up to pursue the championship. Think of the movie “Tin Cup,” but in the world of illegal cockfighting. As I read, I thought of the underworld of dogfighting in which Michael Vick was enmeshed. Both are cruel worlds. 

Because of the detail, the atmospherics, I’ll remember “Cockfighter” long after the plot of “Miami Blues” fades away. But I’ll be reading more about Hoke Mosely.

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200 Black Lizards

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I finished my 200th book in the “Black Lizard” imprint from Vintage Books. It was Dashiell Hammett’s “Nightmare Town,” a collection of short stories. It’s fitting, since the first Black Lizard book I read was Hammett’s “Red Harvest,” starring the semi-anonymous Continental Operative.

The Black Lizard imprint has gobs of great authors–mystery masters–going back to the early 1900s. I’ve now read all of Hammett’s books, all 9 Raymond Chandler books (starring the great Philip Marlowe), 9 Gregory McDonald books (the Fletch and Flynn series), 12 Ross MacDonald books (with Lew Archer), 15 Henning Mankell books (including the entire Kurt Wallander series), plus a number of books by old-time writers David Goodis, Jim Thompson, James Cain, Harry Whittington, Charles Willeford, Dan Marlowe, Patricia Highsmith, and Eric Ambler.

But Black Lizard also has many superb writers–like Don Winslow, Joe R. Lansdale (the Hap & Leonard series), Jeff Lindsey (Dexter), Joe Nesbo (Harry Hole), Steig Larsen (the Dragon Tattoo trilogy), Hakan Nesser, Andrew Vachss (Burke), and more.

I’ve got a shelf filled with Black Lizard books I haven’t read yet. Seldom am I disappointed, especially with the older masters.

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deathworld harry harrison

Black Lizard Books

I’m a huge fan of the Black Lizard imprint from Vintage Books. Some of the very best mysteries are published here, especially in the noir category. The authors include some of the legends–Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Ross McDonald, Jim Thompson, James Cain, Eric Ambler, Ruth Rendell, Andrew Vachss, David Goodis, and Charles Williford. Then there are contemporary stars like Henning Mankell, Jeff Lindsey (the Dexter books), Don Winslow, and Joe Lansdale. Not to mention Stieg Larsson, he of the “Dragon Tattoo” blockbusters.

When I cruise used bookstores, I look for the little black lizard along the spine. If I don’t have the book, I get it. Because I’m very rarely disappointed.

Here are the Black Lizard books I’ve read so far. (A bunch more await on my bookshelves at home.)

  1. Eric Ambler — A Coffin for Dimitrios
  2. Eric Ambler — Epitaph for a Spy
  3. Eric Ambler — State of Siege
  4. John Burdett — The Last Six Million Seconds
  5. James M. Cain — Double Indemnity
  6. James M. Cain — The Postman Always Rings Twice
  7. James M. Cain — Jealous Woman
  8. Paul Cain — Seven Slayers
  9. Francis Carco — Perversity
  10. Raymond Chandler — The High Window
  11. Raymond Chandler — Farewell, My Lovely
  12. Raymond Chandler — The Big Sleep
  13. Raymond Chandler — The Long Goodbye
  14. Raymond Chandler — Trouble Is My Business
  15. Raymond Chandler — The Little Sister
  16. Raymond Chandler — The Lady in the Lake
  17. Raymond Chandler — The Simple Art of Murder
  18. Raymond Chandler — Playback
  19. James Crumley — The Last Good Kiss
  20. James Crumley — The Wrong Case
  21. Michael Dibdin — The Last Sherlock Holmes Story
  22. Michael Dibdin — Thanksgiving
  23. Robert Ferrigno — Flinch: A Novel
  24. Robert Ferrigno — Scavenger Hunt
  25. Robert Ferrigno — The Wake-Up
  26. Dan Fesperman — Small Boat of Great Sorrows
  27. Dan Fesperman — Lie in the Dark
  28. David Goodis — Black Friday
  29. David Goodis — Shoot the Piano Player
  30. David Goodis — Night Squad
  31. Joe Gores — Spade and Archer
  32. Dashiell Hammett — The Continental Op
  33. Dashiell Hammett — Red Harvest
  34. Dashiell Hammett — The Maltese Falcon
  35. Dashiell Hammett — The Thin Man
  36. Michael Harvey — The Chicago Way
  37. Michael Harvey — The Fifth Floor
  38. Michael Harvey — The Third Rail
  39. Vicki Hendricks — Miami Purity
  40. Carl Hiaasen, Bill Montalbano — Powder Burn
  41. Carl Hiaasen, Bill Montalbano — A Death in China
  42. Carl Hiaasen, Bill Montalbano — Trapline
  43. George Higgins — Cogan’s Trade
  44. Patricia Highsmith — The Talented Mr. Ripley
  45. Patricia Highsmith–Ripley Under Ground
  46. Joe R. Lansdale — Lost Echoes
  47. Joe R. Lansdale — Leather Maiden
  48. Joe R. Lansdale — Savage Season
  49. Joe R. Lansdale — Mucho Mojo
  50. Joe R. Lansdale — The Two-Bear Mambo
  51. Joe R. Lansdale — The Bottoms
  52. Stieg Larsson — The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
  53. Stieg Larsson — The Girl Who Played with Fire
  54. Stieg Larsson — The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest
  55. Jeff Lindsay — Dearly Devoted Dexter
  56. Jeff Lindsay — Darkly Dreaming Dexter
  57. Jeff Lindsay — Dexter in the Dark
  58. Jeff Lindsay — Dexter by Design
  59. Ross Macdonald — The Moving Target
  60. Ross Macdonald — The Way Some People Die
  61. Ross Macdonald — The Ivory Grin
  62. Ross Macdonald — The Galton Case
  63. Ross Macdonald — The Wycherly Woman
  64. Ross Macdonald — The Chill
  65. Ross Macdonald — Black Money
  66. Ross Macdonald — The Underground Man
  67. Ross Macdonald — The Drowning Pool
  68. Henning Mankell — Faceless Killers
  69. Henning Mankell — One Step Behind
  70. Henning Mankell — The White Lioness
  71. Henning Mankell — Firewall
  72. Henning Mankell — The Fifth Woman
  73. Henning Mankell — The Dogs of Riga
  74. Henning Mankell — The Return of the Dancing Master
  75. Henning Mankell — Before the Frost
  76. Henning Mankell — The Man Who Smiled
  77. Henning Mankell — Kennedy’s Brain
  78. Henning Mankell — The Pyramid
  79. Henning Mankell — Sidetracked
  80. Henning Mankell — The Man from Beijing
  81. Henning Mankell — The Troubled Man
  82. Dan J. Marlowe — Never Live Twice
  83. Dan J. Marlowe — The Name of the Game is Death
  84. Dan J. Marlowe — Strongarm
  85. Gregory Mcdonald — Carioca Fletch
  86. Gregory McDonald — The Buck Passes Flynn
  87. Gregory McDonald — Flynn’s In
  88. Richard Neely — Shattered
  89. Jo Nesbo–The Snowman
  90. Jo Nesbo–The Leopard
  91. Hakan Nesser — Borkmann’s Point
  92. Hakan Nesser — The Return:
  93. Hakan Nesser — Mind’s Eye
  94. Hakan Nesser — Woman with Birthmark
  95. Jim Nisbet — The Damned Don’t Die
  96. David Peace — Tokyo Year Zero
  97. Justin Peacock — A Cure for Night
  98. Ruth Rendell — No More Dying Then
  99. Ruth Rendell — Some Lie and Some Die
  100. Ruth Rendell — A Demon in My View
  101. Ruth Rendell — A Judgement in Stone
  102. Ruth Rendell — The Lake of Darkness
  103. Ruth Rendell — Shake Hands Forever
  104. Ruth Rendell — A Sleeping Life
  105. Stella Rimington — Secret Asset
  106. Bernhard Schlink — Self’s Deception
  107. Bernhard Schlink — The Gordion Knot
  108. Murray Sinclair — Only in L.A.
  109. Murray Sinclair — Tough Luck in L.A.
  110. Maj Sjowall, Per Wahloo — Roseanna
  111. Maj Sjowall, Per Wahloo — The Man Who Went Up in Smoke
  112. Maj Sjowall, Per Wahloo — The Man on the Balcony
  113. Maj Sjowall, Per Wahloo — The Laughing Policeman
  114. Maj Sjowall, Per Wahloo — Murder at the Savoy
  115. Maj Sjowall, Per Wahloo — The Abominable Man
  116. Maj Sjowall, Per Wahloo — The Locked Room
  117. Maj Sjowall, Per Wahloo — The Fire Engine that Disappeared
  118. Maj Sjowall, Per Wahloo — Cop Killer
  119. April Smith — Judas Horse
  120. April Smith — North of Montana
  121. Apri Smith — Good Morning, Killer
  122. Peter Spiegelman — Black Maps
  123. Jason Starr — Hard Feelings
  124. Jim Thompson — The Getaway
  125. Jim Thompson — The Grifters
  126. Jim Thompson — A Hell of a Woman
  127. Jim Thompson — Pop. 1280
  128. Jim Thompson — The Killer Inside Me
  129. Jim Thompson — The Transgressors
  130. Jim Thompson — After Dark, My Sweet
  131. Jim Thompson — Savage Night
  132. Andrew Vachss — Flood
  133. Andrew Vachss — Strega
  134. Andrew Vachss — Blue Belle
  135. Andrew Vachss — Hard Candy
  136. Andrew Vachss — Blossom
  137. Andrew Vachss — Sacrifice
  138. Andrew Vachss — Down in the Zero
  139. Andrew Vachss — Footsteps of the Hawk
  140. Andrew Vachss — False Allegations
  141. Andrew Vachss — Safe House
  142. Andrew Vachss — Choice of Evil
  143. Andrew Vachss — Dead and Gone
  144. Andrew Vachss — Pain Management
  145. Andrew Vachss — Only Child
  146. Andrew Vachss — Down Here
  147. Andrew Vachss — The Getaway Man
  148. Andrew Vachss — Shella
  149. Andrew Vachss — Mask Market
  150. Andrew Vachss — Born Bad
  151. Andrew Vachss — Terminal
  152. Minette Walters — The Devil’s Feather
  153. Lionel White — The Killing
  154. Harry Whittington — The Devil Wears Wings
  155. Harry Whittington — Fires That Destroy
  156. Harry Whittington — A Moment to Prey
  157. Charles Willeford — Pick-Up
  158. Charles Willeford — The Burnt Orange Heresy
  159. Charles Willeford — Cockfighter
  160. Charles Willeford — Miami Blues
  161. Charles Williams — Hot Spot
  162. Don Winslow — The Death and Life of Bobby Z
  163. Don Winslow — The Winter of Frankie Machine
  164. Don Winslow — Dawn Patrol
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2011 Books Read

Books I Read in 2011

Here are the books I read in 2011. I rated them with 1-5 stars. The book must be truly phenomenal to get 5 stars.

  1. ***Footsteps of the Hawk (Andrew Vachss). Number 8 in the Burke series.
  2. ***False Allegations (Andrew Vachss). Number 9 in the Burke series.
  3. ***Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter (Seth Graham-Smith). A retelling of history, in which Lincoln is a master vampire killer. And it all fits! My review.
  4. ****I Am Number Four (Pittacus Lore). The first of a series about children from another planet, with growing superpowers, who are being hunted on earth by the Mogadorian race, which devastated their home planet. Very engrossing. My review.
  5. ****Matched (Ally Condie). Engrossing story about a girl in a dystopian future, where everything is tightly controlled. The state “matches” her with the spouse they intend for her, but another boy enters the picture. I really liked it. My review.
  6. ****The Man with the Getaway Face (Richard Stark). The second book in the “Parker” series, written pseudonymously by Donald Westlake.
  7. ***The Blonde (Duane Swierczynski). Like all Swiercyznski books, a quirky thriller. An ordinary guy is caught up in a plot in which he must stay within 10 feet of a mysterious blonde, or she’ll die–and she slipped him poison, and only she knows the antidote. There’s a big government conspiracy behind it all. My review.
  8. ****Hot (Mark Hertsgaard). Excellent, excellent book about climate change and what various countries and cities are doing to prepare for it.
  9. **Rough Country (John Sandford). The third Virgil Flowers books, and my least favorite so far. My review.
  10. ****The Professional (Robert Parker). The 37th Spenser novel. A little bit different than most Spenser fare, but totally worth reading. My review.
  11. ***The Longest War (Peter Bergen). Superbly reported history of Al Qaeda and our war with it. My review.
  12. ***Choice of Evil (Andrew Vachss). Number 10 in the Burke series. My review.
  13. ***Area 51 (Annie Jacobsen). The whole history of Area 51, with many government secrets revealed. Loved it. My review.
  14. ***Dead and Gone (Andrew Vachss). Number 11 in the Burke series. My review.
  15. ***Pain Management (Andrew Vachss). Number 12 in the Burke series. My review.
  16. **A Renegade History of the United States (Thaddeus Russell). A look at politically incorrect and off-beat areas of US history. Some interesting, thought-provoking stuff. My review.
  17. **Generation X-Christian (Drew Dyck). Understanding and dealing with people from the younger generations who grow up in the church, but reject Christianity as adults.
  18. **Love Wins (Robb Bell). A controversial book questioning the traditional teaching on hell. Raises lots of good questions, but not a serious academic book.
  19. *Murder at the Savoy (Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo). A very disappointing book in the Martin Beck series. My review.
  20. *The Abominable Man (Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo). A terrible, terrible book in the Martin Beck series. My review.
  21. ****One Shot (Lee Child). Five people are killed by a sniper, and Jack Reacher knows the guy arrested for their murders. Involves some brutal Russian gangsters. Good read. My review.
  22. ****The Hard Way (Lee Child). The head of a mercenary organization hires Reacher to find his kidnapped wife. Lots of twists and turns. One of the better Reacher books. My review.
  23. *A Death in China (Carl Hiaason/Montalban). Very so-so.
  24. ***Borkman’s Point (Hakan Nesser). Another Inspector Van Veeteren mystery, set in an unstated European country. A very good procedural series. My review.
  25. ***I, Alex Cross (James Patterson). A fairly typical Alex Cross (the 15th) book, this one involving a White House employee connected to a murder. My review.
  26. ***Bad Luck and Trouble (Lee Child). Another Reacher novel.
  27. ***The Renegades (T. Jefferson Parker, Aug. 19). The second Charlie Hood novel, following the excellent “LA Outlaws.” Very interesting structure, with two stories being told at once–the killer telling his story, and Hood trying to figure out who the killer is. My review.
  28. *The Woman Chaser (Charles Williford, Aug. 20). An odd little book from 1960. No real plot. Skip it, unless you’re a big Willeford fan (like I am). My review.
  29. *****City of Thieves (David Benniof, Sept. 5). Incredible book set during the siege of Petersburg during World War 2. Highly recommended. My review.
  30. *Magnificent 12: The Call (Sept. 13). A Free Book Friday piece of juvenile fiction I read on my Nook. Didn’t like it.
  31. ***The One from the Other (Phillip Kerr, Sept. 24). No my favorite Bernie Gunther novel, and the plot is quite complicated. But a superb book nonetheless. Set a few years after WW2 ends. My review.
  32. ***The Outfit (Richard Stark). The third book in the “Parker” series, written pseudonymously by Donald Westlake.
  33. ****The Power of Six (Pittacus Lore, Sept. 26). The sequel to I Am Number Four, and just as good. My review.
  34. *Ninth Grade Slays (Heather Brewer, Oct 9). Juvenile fiction involving a vampire child. The second in the series, and the last one I’ll read. Just didn’t keep my attention.
  35. ****Night of Thunder (Stephen Hunter, Oct 23). Fascinating Bob Lee Swagger novel set around the Bristol NASCAR race. Someone tries to kill Swagger’s daughter, and he comes to get revenge. Excellent book. My review.
  36. ****I, Sniper (Stephen Hunter, Oct 26). Carl Hitchkock, a renowned Vietnam sniper, is framed for several high-profile celebrity murders. Swagger is called in by the FBI to confirm that Hitchock committed the kills, but determines otherwise, and nobody likes it. Another superb Hunter book. My review.
  37. ****Nothing to Lose (Lee Child, Oct 28). Jack Reacher stumbles into trouble in a small Colorado town, and he can’t let it go. One of my favorite Reacher books. My review.
  38. **Agent X (Noah Boyd, Oct 30). The sequel to the much better “The Bricklayer.” Disappointing. My review.
  39. ****Blood Safari (Deon Meyer, Nov 3). A B&N Free Book Friday selection which introduced me to a remarkable writer. This was a truly excellent thriller, set in South Africa with a protagonist, Lemmer, whom I’ll be reading more about.
  40. ***Cross Fire (James Patterson, Nov 5). Kyle Craig is back, tormenting Alex Cross from very close range. My review.
  41. **The Strategically Small Church (Brandon O’Brien, Nov 5). Pointing out the strengths of smaller churches, and fiercely battling the current evangelical culture which emphasizes bigness and discredits the small.
  42. *The Drowning Pool (Ross MacDonald, Nov 12). Maybe my least favorite Lew Archer book. My review.
  43. ****Spade and Archer (Joe Gores, Nov 20). A delightful prequel to “The Maltese Falcon,” spanning 1921-1928. Shows how Sam Spade left the Continental agency and set up his own detective practice, and takes us through several cases. A really good book, and a pleasant surprise. My review.
  44. *The Gordion Knot (Bernhard Schlink, Nov 25). A strange little character-drive spy novel. The second book I’ve read by this German mystery writer, and I didn’t really care for either of them. My review.
  45. *The Man from Beijing (Henning Mankell, Dec 3. A mass-murder plot that starts out great, but ends disappointingly, with some glaring inconsistencies. My review.
  46. ***A Cure for Night (Justin Peacock, Dec. 6). An urban murder mystery involving, with a public defender as the protagonist. Very good. My review.
  47. ****Bad Blood (John Sandford, Dec. 16). The latest in the Virgil Flowers series. This one–maybe my favorite–involves sexual abuse in a cult-like religious community. My review.
  48. **Crossed (Ally Condy, Dec. 22). The sequel to the much better Matched, and the middle book of a planned trilogy set in a dystopian society. This is juvenile fiction. I loved Matched, but this one was disappointing in that very little was explained, and not much happened.
  49. ***The Maze Runner (James Dashner, Dec. 25). The first book of another juvenile fiction trilogy, also set (like Crossed) in a dystopian society. Really really liked this book.

My 10 Best of 2011

  1. City of Thieves, by David Benniot. Set in St. Petersburg, Russia, during World War 2. My review.
  2. Blood Safari, by Deon Meyer. My introduction to a fabulous South African writer.
  3. Hot, by Mark Hertsgaard. An artfully written look at the ramifications of a warming earth.
  4. Nothing to Lose, by Lee Child. Jack Reacher stumbles into trouble in a small Colorado town named Despair. My review.
  5. I Am Number Four, by Pittacus Lore. The first of a planned series about an alien war brought to earth. My review.
  6. Matched , by Ally Condie. A young girl comes of age in an interestingly-imagined dystopian society. My review.
  7. Night of Thunder, by Stephen Hunter. Bob Lee Swagger, master sniper and all-around tough guy, tackles a conspiracy built around the Bristol NASCAR race. My review.
  8. The Professional, by Robert Parker. The third-to-the-last Spenser novel written by the master, and it’s a good one. My review.
  9. Area 51, by Annie Jacobsen. The whole fascinating history of the super-secret chunk of Nevada known as Area 51. Loved it. My review.
  10. Spade and Archer, by Joe Gores. How Sam Spade, the famous Dasheill Hammett sleuth of “The Maltest Falcon,” got to be Sam Spade. My review.

Book: “Dead Street,” by Mickey Spillane

dead-street.jpgI just read my first Mickey Spillane novel, and it’s not at all what I expected.

My image of Spillane goes back to the 1970s, when I was a teenage kid and would see risque book covers by such authors as Spillane and John D. MacDonald. Judging a book by its cover, I assumed they were tawdry, sex-filled books, and being a good preacher’s kid, that didn’t interest me. Besides, back then, all I cared about was science fiction.

But mysteries have been my primary interest for 20 years. About ten years ago I discovered the older pulp fiction and was delighted by the plots, characters, and relative lack of sexual content. Hammett, Chandler, Whittington, Goodis, Willeford–good stuff.

In 2004, a line of paperback hardboiled crime novels was launched called Hard Case Crime. Most feature covers which hark back to the golden age of pulp fiction, with beautiful women in peril, and not necessarily well-clad. The series, now up to 70-some books, features pulp fiction writers of decades past (Charles Williams, Gil Brewer, David Goodis, Brett Halliday), along with established or promising contemporary writers of the genre.

One of the first Hard Case Crime books was Stephen King’s, “The Colorado Kid.” I knew Stephen King, knew what to expect. It was a decent book (though he should stick to horror), and I decided to try other Hard Case Crime books. To this point, I’ve read 19 books in the imprint.

At Half-Priced Books, I came across “Dead Street,” by Mickey Spillane. I started reading it last night, with ingrained assumptions, and was immediately hooked. The guy can write!

The story is told first-person by Jack Stang, a retired NYPD cop. Twenty years ago, his fiance was abducted by mobsters and presumed dead. Now he discovers that she was found–blind, and with no memory–by a veterinarian who took her in and cared for her. Bettie is now living in a Florida community populated mostly by retired NYPD cops and fireman, and the vet has arranged for Stang to move into a house next to her.

So he moves to Florida, immediately encounters Bettie, and long-buried memories are triggered. Bettie knows nothing about her past relationship with Jack, or her previous life in general. But scraps keep surfacing.

Of course, mobsters had abducted Bettie for a reason, wanting something she could give–but were foiled in their efforts. If they learn that she’s still alive, they’ll come after her. And of course, they do.

In trying to track down the mystery of why Bettie was abducted, Stang makes several trips back to New York. The story gradually unravels. There’s action and killing. But there are also long passages where it’s just Jack and Bettie talking. I’m very impressed by how Spillane constructed this book.

Spillane died in 2006, with “Dead Street” mostly done. Max Allan Collins finished it, using Spillane’s extensive notes, and Hard Case Crime published “Dead Street” in 2007. It’s really a wonderful book. with practically no sexual content and minimal obscenity (for a contemporary book). I couldn’t put it down, and finished the 207 pages in half a day.

I don’t know what Spillane’s other books are like. Perhaps the Mike Hammer series, for which he’s best known, is more in line with the slutty covers of that era. But maybe not. “Dead Street” had the restraint, sexual and otherwise, of detective fiction from the 1940s and 1950s, even though it was written in recent years. I need to spot-check another Spillane book to see if it delights me as much as “Dead Street” did.

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Book: Pick-up

pickup.jpgThis book seemed so-so right up until the last two sentences, when it blew me away.

“Pick-up,” by Charles Willeford, was published in 1955. I have a Black Lizard edition. 

The book revolves around Harry, a hard-luck loser of sorts who bounces around aimlessly, and of the troubled gal he befriends and romances. We see him in all kinds of contexts–in bars, with friends, with criminals, with the police, at work, with the gal’s mother, in jail–some of everything. Nothing much really happens. There is no mystery to be solved. We just see Harry interacting with a lot of different people in a lot of different situations.

Frankly, it sporadically bored me. As I turned the last page, I was already thinking about the next book I would start. Then I got to the last couple lines:

I left the shelter of the awning and walked up the hill in the rain.
Just a tall, lonely Negro.
Walking in the rain.

Until that point, I didn’t realize Harry was black. Willeford gave no clues. So throughout the book, I had pictured a white guy interacting with people in all of these situations. And since it’s written in first-person, from Harry’s point of view, I thought I was seeing everything through a white man’s eyes.

But after learning that he was black, it changed the whole book. Now I had to insert a black man into all of those interactions in 1950s Los Angeles. And that made it a whole different story. I found myself retracing the various scenes of the book, replacing my white guy with a black guy. And I realized how brilliant the book was.

Imagine the extra impact this would have had when it was published in 1955. (Sorry I ruined the ending, but I figured this isn’t a book you would ever come across.)

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