hard crime

Author Rating: A

The Grifters (read 12/24/11) Highly recommended

J. Kingston Pierce at The Rap Sheet explains why The Grifters is one not to be missed:

I know Jim Thompson is a crime writer, though after re-reading one of his books, you wonder. Most of the requisite ingredients are there–guns and blood, cops and criminals, explications on the social habits of the wicked and dispossessed. But you can’t help thinking that Thompson only picked the genre as the most expedient route to his actual goal, which was to delve unblinkingly into the casual depravity of your everyday sociopath.

Of course, The Grifters (originally published in 1963) is first-rate noir, which is where it clearly fits within the contemporary taxonomy of crime fiction. Darkly engrossing and fast-moving, with writing that lacerates when it isn’t being lyrical. It’s a brief trip into the netherworld of the professional con, where fleecing suckers is less an adventure than a routine occupation, complete with its own operating manual–unwritten–and its own lexicon.

The screenplay for the 1990 movie adaptation, which received four Academy Award nominations and was named best picture of the year by, among others, the Los Angeles Times, was written by Donald E. Westlake.

It really is a terrific read.


Author Rating: A+

Hard crime thrillers written by Donald E. Westlake under the pseudonym (Richard Stark.” All are recommended. Those I have read are so indicated.

* The Hunter (read 7/10/09)

Holy smokes! The Hunter (1962) was Westlake’s first hard crime novel published under the pseudonym Richard Stark and is the first of many featuring thief and all-around tough guy Parker. It was made into a movie in 1967 titled Point Blank, directed by John Boorman and starring Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson and Keenan Wynn which I haven’t yet watched, but the book is brilliantly done, full of action and suspense. The Parker novels written in the ’90s are not nearly as violent and corpse-strewn as the early ones from the ’60s.

Mal Resnick, one of the guys working a heist with Parker, pulls a double-cross and steals Parker’s woman, leaving him for dead, so Parker has to make things right.

* The Man With the Getaway Face (read 7/12/09)

Picks up where The Hunter left off. Parker has had plastic surgery to make him unrecognizable but the Mob — calling themselves “The Outfit,” have tracked him down and set a hitman on him. Having earlier lost the recovered $45,000 stolen by Resnick in The Hunter, Parker agrees to take part in an armored-car heist. While setting up and executing the heist, Parker has to deal with Stubbs, the former chauffeur of the doctor who gave Parker a new face, who is looking for which of the doctor’s last four patients killed him, as well as work around another double-cross by one of his companions.

* The Outfit (read 7/14/09)

The third Parker novel, published in 1963, picks up where we left off in The Man With The Getaway Face. The heist a success and the doctor’s murderer found and dealt with, Parker turns his sights back to The Outfit. Parker is David to The Outfit’s Goliath and pulls out all the stops to force them to lay off him. Parker is implacable and inexorable.

* The Mourner

* The Score (Parker and Grofield) (read 8/09)

* The Jugger (read 8/09)

* The Seventh

* The Handle (Parker and Grofield)

* The Damsel (Grofield)

* The Rare Coin Score

* The Green Eagle Score (read 8/09)

* The Dame (Grofield) (read 8/09)

* The Black Ice Score (read 8/09)

* The Sour Lemon Score

* Deadly Edge

* The Blackbird (Grofield)

* Slayground (read 8/09)

Parker and some of his pals, including Grofield, heist an armored car but run into some trouble as they’re getting away. Parker winds up in a closed amusement park with the bag of money and a bunch of mobsters and cops who want him dead. After leading his pursuers on a chase through the park, he gets away but has to leave the money hidden in a fun house.

* Lemons Never Lie (Grofield) (read 8/08)

* Plunder Squad

* Butcher’s Moon (Parker and Grofield) (read 11/8/09)

This is the last Parker novel (published in 1974) until 1997 when Westlake revived Richard Stark for another run, and it is phenomenal!

You don’t want to piss off Parker, or steal from him. Parker goes back to the amusement park where he left the loot in Slayground but it’s not there, so he pays a visit to the top mobster in town and tells him to give it back. Lozini says he doesn’t have it but Parker knows someone in the organization took it and uncovers a scheme to unseat Lozini which has been partly funded with Parker’s loot. When the mobsters refuse to give him his money and shoot Grofield in a double-cross, Parker calls in some of his pals for a night of mayhem in which five or six mob businesses are robbed. The $250,000 take is the payoff for the gang assisting Parker in rescuing the badly injured Grofield who is being kept alive as a bargaining chip and teaching the mobsters a lesson they will never forget.

This is Westlake at his best.

* Comeback (read 8/08)

* Backflash (read 8/08)

* Flashfire (read 8/08)

* Firebreak (read 8/08)

* Breakout

* Nobody Runs Forever (read 8/08)

* Ask The Parrot

* Dirty Money (read 5/5/09)

The money has already been stolen (Nobody Runs Forever) but it’s very hot and Parker and his crew have to retrieve it from the location where it was hidden and try to unload it. This is the last Parker novel as Donald E. Westlake died December 31, 2008.

For excellent coverage of the novels of Richard Stark, be sure to visit The Violent World of Parker.

James Wolcott wrote today that he thought the 1973 movie The Friends of Eddie Coyleexceeds expectations.” In poking around to see if I could find it to watch online (no success), I discovered that the movie is based on a 1972 novel of the same name by George V. Higgins.

Higgins wrote more than two dozen novels (and several non-fiction books) between 1972 and his death in 1999. In 1985 The Friends of Eddie Coyle was selected as one of the twenty best American novels since World War II by the British Booksellers Association.

With The Digger’s Game (1973) and Cogan’s Trade (1974), about a professional killer, Higgins’s first novel was part of a loose trilogy about the criminal underworld. In The Friends of Eddie Coyle the protagonist is a smalltime hoodlum and hustler who tries to avoid giving evidence against his friends. He runs guns to a team of bank robbers while selling information to the cops. Eddie’s betrayals ultimately lead to his death. Higgins’ literary trademark was already fully developed: the action was mostly transmitted through dialogue.

Author Rating: D

Mickey Spillane was, among other things, the author of a couple dozen hard crime novels, most notably a baker’s dozen featuring private investigator Mike Hammer. The first Hammer novel was published in 1952 (I, The Jury), the last (Black Alley) in 1996.

I really wanted to like Spillane’s writing and was disappointed to find it of such poor quality.

Survival … Zero (Read 6/22/09) Meh.

Mike Hammer gets a phone call from a friend who has just had his guts ripped open. It’s a slow month, so Hammer decides to investigate. Inexplicably the murder of Hammer’s friend is tied to a Soviet plot to release a virus in to kill the entire population of the United States.

Mike Hammer comes across as a self-righteous asshole. That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem but the narrative is confused and confusing. The story has more holes than my colander. Published in 1970.

The Killing Man (read 6/24/09) Meh

I gave this up in fairly short order when I realized that it was just more of the same. Spillane managed to change or grow not a whit in 19 years.

If you want to read some good hard-boiled crime or detective stories, I recommend John D. MacDonald or Richard Stark. Life is too short to waste on Spillane.

By 1980 seven of Mickey Spillane’s crime novels were among the top 15 all-time bestselling fiction titles in the United States. More than 225 million copies of his books have sold internationally.

In this clip from a 1964 interview, Spillane talks about about his signature detective character, Mike Hammer and the movie business.

(Steve Holland) To fans, hard-boiled meant the two-fisted tales of gumshoes and G-Men that had appeared in pulps like Dime Detective since the 1920s; to the critics it was still a slowly emerging literature led by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, both ex-Black Mask writers who had surfaced in hardcover. The Private Eye was Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, portrayed on the screen by Humphrey Bogart; film noir had yet to be recognised in America as a style and had only just been thus named in France. The critics ripped into Spillane’s novel [I The Jury], and only a little over half the 7,000 print run sold.

Mike Hammer was not the wisecracking Bogart. He did not wisecrack. He got angry and threatened. Chandler’s novels were relatively bloodless; although he started slowly, Hammer was to average ten killings per novel. Spillane wasn’t a new Chandler. I, the Jury had echoes of The Maltese Falcon, especially the down-beat ending of the latter where Spade hands Brigid O’Shaughnessy over to the cops, but Spillane wasn’t even a new Hammett. He was a new Carroll John Daly, and Mike Hammer was Race Williams for the post-war audience.

Williams, like Hammer, laid his cards on the table: “People – especially the police – don’t understand me. And what we don’t understand we don’t appreciate. The police look upon me as being so close to the criminal that you can’t tell the difference… Every cop in the great city has my reputation hammered into him as a gun and a killer. No use to go into detail on that point. I carry a gun – two of them, for that matter. As to being a killer, well – I’m not a target, if you get what I mean. I’ve killed in my time, and I daresay I’ll kill again. There – let the critics of my methods paste that in their hats.”

Author Rating: A

Hammett was cited by Donald E. Westlake in an interview as an influence on his own work, so I picked up Hammett’s Complete Novels at the library.

There are indeed similarities in their writing styles but, unfortunately, Hammett’s writing career was not to be as long as Westlake’s, his first novel, Red Harvest, published in 1929 and his last, The Thin Man, published in 1934.

(Petri Liukkonen) Hammett’s first short story appeared in the magazine Black Mask on 1 October 1923, and his fiction writing career as novelist ended in 1934. In Black Mask Hammett became along with Erle Stanley Gardner one of its most popular writers. Under the pseudonym Peter Collinson, Hammett introduced a short, overweight, unnamed detective employed by the San Francisco branch of the Continental Detective Agency, who became known as The Continental Op. In the three dozen stories between 1929 and 1930, featuring the tough and dedicated Op, Hammett gave shape to the first believable detective hero in American fiction. Drawing on his Pinkerton experiences, Hammett created a private eye, whose methods of detection are completely convincing, and whose personality has more than one dimension.

The Thin Man (read 4/2/08) Highly recommended

The Thin Man is the lightest of the five short novels, and features Nick Charles, a hard drinking retired detective, and his wife Nora, a wealthy heiress. It is the basis for the six Thin Man movies, a 1940s radio series, a 1950s television series and an unsuccessful 1991 musical.

Red Harvest (read 4/3/08) Highly recommended

Murder, mayhem and public corruption. The son of a local industrialist contacts the Continental Detective Agency but is murdered before the Continental Op can meet with him. Competing gangs, invited by the industrialist to help “resolve” a labor dispute, threaten to take the whole town down.

The Dain Curse (read 4/4/08) Recommended

Murder and a corrupt religious cult.

The Maltese Falcon (read 4/6/08) Highly recommended

Sam Spade and his partner Miles Archer are hired to follow a man who has allegedly ran off with the under-age sister of their client, but both Archer and the man turn up dead, and Spade is the chief suspect. His troubles don’t end there. It seems that the client is involved with some shady people trying to find a figurine worth millions.

From The Maltese Falcon:

The life he knew was a clean orderly, sane, responsible affair. Now a falling beam had shown him that life was fundamentally none of these things. He, the good citizen-husband-father, could be wiped out between office and restaurant by the accident of a falling beam. He knew then that men died at haphazard like that, and lived only while blind chance spared them.”

The Glass Key (read 4/6/08) Highly recommended

First published in 1931, gambler and racketeer Ned Beaumont’s devotion to crooked political boss Paul Madvig leads him to investigate the murder of a local senator’s son as a potential gang war brews.

The books here are those Westlake published under his own name. I have separate posts for books published under the pseudonyms “Richard Stark” and “Tucker Coe.”

There are multiple categories of novels written by Westlake under his own name. Comic crime capers involving John Dortmunder, non-Dortmunder comic crime capers, stories which I will call “non-crime” even though many of them do involve some kind of crime, and crime adventures.

Author Rating: A+

* * *

Westlake’s Dortmunder is a small-time burglar for whom life presents a series of opportunities which rarely work out. The Dortmunder stories are wonderfully complex comic crime capers that will keep you laughing and gasping and turning the page.

The Hot Rock (read 7/07)

Westlake’s first crime caper starring John Dortmunder. Originally conceived as a Parker novel (see Richard Stark), the plot involves stealing the same object — an emerald — over and over and over. Wonderful hard-boiled style.

Don’t Ask (read 9/11/07)

Similar to The Hot Rock in being an “international” heist but a little more sophisticated. The ending is timed perfectly.

Good Behavior (read 11/15/07)

Dortmunder and his crew have to rescue a num from the tower where her father is keeping her prisoner, pull off a heist of multiple jewelers at once, fight off unexpected armed mercenaries. It’s a good thing the Silent Sisters of Saint Filumena are there to help!

What’s the Worst That Could Happen? (read 11/19/07)

Dortmunder’s ring is boosted by a corporate baron, Max Fairbanks, who busts him robbing his Long Island mansion and Dortmunder has to get it back. This delightful romp goes from Long Island to Manhattan to Washington DC. Fairbanks lives to regret his humiliation of John Dortmunder, the ring is recovered. A rare success story involving Dortmunder.

Bad News (read 11/21/08)

Andy Kelp gets a gig digging up a body and reburying it in an occupied plot in a NY cemetery and asks his friend Dortmunder to assist with the reburying and disposal of the plot’s occupant. The group who hired Kelp are trying to pull a fast one and have “Little Feather” declared the last remaining member of a NY Indian tribe to claim a one-third share in a reservation casino. Things work out — sort of.

Why Me? (read 3/25/08)

In The Hot Rock, Dortmunder couldn’t get hold of a valuable jewel no matter how ingenious the plan. In Why Me?, Dortmunder has to figure out how to get rid of a similarly valuable jewel.

While burgling a small jewelry store, Dortmunder accidentally steals a valuable ruby and sapphire ring that had been stolen before it could be returned to Turkey. There is a shake down of every known criminal in New York as a result of the ring’s original theft and Dortmunder has not only the NYPD and the FBI after him but every known criminal in New York is mad at him too. Dortmunder has to evade the police, the Feds, some terrorists and the entire criminal element of New York while figuring out how to get rid of the ring.

Watch Your Back! (read 4/14/08)

Only Westlake can repeat a premise like robbing a Manhattan penthouse multiple times and keep each one fresh and breezy as a spring morning. While Dortmunder and his gang are organizing and executing a heist, the son of a New Jersey mob boss is screwing with OJ’s Bar and Grill, the gang’s favorite meeting place. The gang lose the battle (the loot) but win the war (the loot-laden mobsters are picked up by police).

Drowned Hopes (read 6/8/08)

An old pal of Dortmunder’s comes to him with a request to help him recover $700,000 hidden decades earlier after a bank heist. The problem is the location where the money was hidden is now underwater in an upper New York state reservoir.

Published in 1990.

What’s So Funny? (read 9/12/08)

Dortmunder and the gang are pressed into hijacking a solid gold chess set. Unfortunately, just as they’re about to get paid the chess set is stolen and once again the hard-luck gang is out of luck.

Jimmy The Kid (read 12/20/08)

Using one of Westlake’s Parker novels as a template for their plan, Dortmunder and the gang go into kidnapping for ransom with hilarious results.

Bank Shot (read 2/09)

Dortmunder and crew don’t just rob the bank, they steal the whole bank.

Nobody’s Perfect (read 4/19/09)

First published in 1977, this misadventure begins when Dortmunder is railroaded into stealing a painting so the owner can collect the insurance but it gets lost. Unfortunately for Dortmunder, the painting winds up in Scotland, so this is now an international misadventure. Great stuff.

Thieves Dozen (read 4/21/10)

Twelve short stories featuring everybody’s favorite criminal — John Dortmunder. These are truly some of the most delightful short stories you’ll find anywhere. A must read.

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The following are non-Dortmunder comic crime capers

Trust Me On This (read 11/23/07)

A wonderful murder mystery romp set in the underworld of tabloid journalism. In his forward to this novel, Westlake disclaims the existence of an actual paper like the Weekly Galaxy and suggests that should such a paper actually exist it would involve people “even more lost to all considerations of truth, taste . . . or any shred of common humanity.”

Baby, Would I Lie? (read 8/11/07)

Westlake and his readers Trust Me On This so much, he takes us on a second trip with the folks from the Weekly Galaxy, this one set in Branson, Missouri. Hilarious, fast-paced satire involving country western stars and their fans.

The Busy Body (read 7/26/08)

A romp in the underworld. Aloysius Engel becomes righthand man to the local chief, Nick Rovito, and tasked with recovering a suit lined with uncut heroin in which Charle Brody was buried. But Charlie’s body is not in the grave and Engle has to find the suit.

Wonderful pacing, masterful use of language puts you right in the middle of it. Published in 1966.

Money For Nothing (read 2/11/08)

This one has spies. Josh Redmont received $1000 monthly for seven years. He didn’t know where the money was coming from but he wasn’t about to ask questions until one day he finds himself in the middle of — and the potential fall guy for — a political murder.

Great characters, great pacing, with Westlake’s first-class comic flare.

Help I’m Being Held Prisoner (read 8/24/07)

Harry Kunt (pronounced “Koont”), as a defense against a world in which his very name is a practical joke, is a lifetime practical joker, but when one of his better jokes misfires, he ends him up in a maximum security prison. He stumbles across a group of fellow prisoners who have worked out a way to continue life on the outside while serving their sentences and invite him to join them. Things would be great but someone is hiding messages in stuff leaving the prison which say “Help, I’m being held prisoner,” and the warden blames Kunt for the trouble this is causing him.

Put A Lid On It (read 10/21/07)

Sitting in jail in the Manhattan Correctional Center, denied parole and stoically awaiting sentencing, Meehan (a one-name kind of guy) is surprised with a chance to escape his fate with an offer from a clandestinely dispatched representative of the president’s reelection campaign. Meehan just has to steal an incriminating videotape from the upstate-New York estate of a wacko millionaire before time runs out.

God Save The Mark (read 9/10/08)

From a review at Amazon:

* mark n. An easy victim; a ready subject for the practices of a confidence man, thief, beggar, etc.; a sucker.-Dictionary of American Slang, Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1960

That’s the long definition of a mark. But there’s a shorter one. It goes:

* mark n. Fred Fitch

What, you ask, is a Fred Fitch? Well, for one thing, Fred Fitch is the man with the most extensive collection of fake receipts, phony bills of sale, and counterfeit sweepstakes tickets in the Western Hemisphere, and possibly in the entire world. For another thing, Fred Fitch may be the only New York City resident in the twentieth century to buy a money machine. When Barnum said, “There’s one born every minute, and two to take him,” he didn’t know about Fred Fitch; when Fred Fitch was born, there were two million to take him.

Every itinerant grifter, hypester, bunk artist, short-conner, amuser, shearer, short-changer, green-goods worker, pennyweighter, ring dropper, and yentzer to hit New York City considers his trip incomplete until he’s also hit Fred Fitch. He’s sort of the con-man’s version of Go: Pass Fred Fitch, collect two hundred dollars, and move on.

What happens to Fred Fitch when his long-lost Uncle Matt dies and leaves Fred three hundred thousand dollars shouldn’t happen to the ball in a pinball machine. Fred Fitch with three hundred thousand dollars is like a mouse with a sack of catnip: He’s likely to attract the wrong kind of attention.

Add to this the fact that Uncle Matt was murdered, by person or persons unknown, and that someone now seems determined to murder Fred as well, mix in two daffily charming beauties of totally different types, and you have a perfect setup for the busiest fictional hero since the well-known one-armed paperhanger. As Fred Fitch careers across the New York City landscape-and sometimes skyline-in his meetings with cops, con men, beautiful girls, and (maybe) murderers, he takes on some of the loonier aspects of a Dante without a Virgil. Take one part comedy and one part suspense and shake well-mostly with laughter.

Somebody Owes Me Money (read 1/09)

Published in 1969, Westlake proves again that he is a writer for the ages. There is nothing dated about either the story or the writing. Chet Conway, a New York City cabbie, gets a tip on a horse, but when he goes to collect on the long-shot, he finds his bookie has been killed with a bullet, and too many people think Chet pulled the trigger. Chet just wants his money! Another delightful Westlake romp.

The Fugitive Pigeon (read 2/09)

Click the link to read my stand-alone review of this hilarious crime caper published in 1965.

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From here down is still a work in progress in terms of organizing.

Adios Scheherezade (a writer’s nervous breakdown)

The Ax (dark crime – midlife crisis gone wrong)

Up Your Banners (1960s)

Anarchaos (sci-fi)

The Hook (dark crime — another writer’s breakdown)

Killy is a story about union busting and has a similar flavor to Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest. (Read 5/09)

Kahawa (crime adventure)

Humans (adventure/mystery)

High Adventure (crime adventure)

361 (hard crime)

Sacred Monster (Hollywood crime)

Published in 1989, this is the least believable and most dated of Westlakes’ books. I would recommend this only to real fans of Westlake. He had a difficult relationship with Hollywood during various attempts to bring his novels to the big screen, and this seems more like demon exorcism than anything else. The central character is a Hollywood star with a dark past that finally catches up with him. More psychological than action.

A Likely Story (read 5/12/09)

First published in 1984, this is not a crime story, unless you consider philandering to be criminal activity. Thomas Diskant is a writer with a complicated personal life, including a wife from whom he is separated, a girlfriend with whom he lives and an editor with whom he begins an affair in order to get a book through publication in order to keep things afloat. The first third of the book felt stilted, dated and somewhat meandering, but by the time I got to the halfway point the story proved to have legs. It’s a story about coming to terms with life.

Two Much (read 6/12/09)

This book is really incredible. Two Much, published in 1975, is about man’s drive to come out on top. Art Dodge, owner of a very small greeting card company in New York City, is a funny guy who loves to fool around and will do or say just about anything to get a woman in bed. When he meets Liz Kerner and she tells him she has a twin, he unthinkingly pipes up, “I do too!” It turns out that Liz and Betty are not only good looking young women, they are very wealthy recent orphans.

Unable to tell Liz that he was lying about having a twin, Art is forced to produce “Bart” who begins dating Betty. The charade becomes more and more complicated as the relationships between Art and Liz, “Bart” and Betty progress.

What ultimately happens is shocking. This is Westlake at his best.

Two Much (read October 2009)

A collection of 18 short stories that Westlake selected as his best non-series short fiction written between 1958 and 1997. One gem after another.

The Comedy Is Finished (read 8/25/2017)

Westlake’s final lost novel (that we know of, after Memory, published in 2010), written in the late ’70s/early ’80s, according to the Publisher’s Note, was set aside and never submitted for publication “in part because Martin Scorsese had just released the movie The King of Comedy and Don thought some readers might find the movie’s premise and the book’s were too similar.” I’ve never seen the movie, so I can’t speak to that, but this novel is the best of Westlake. Set in 1977, it’s a story very much set in that time but speaks to the delusion that has captured many today – that our societal and political problems can be fixed through violence. Donald E. Westlake is a true gift.

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