4 out of 5
Spiderweb: 5 out of 5
Shooting Star: 4 out of 5
While I definitely love the discovery of new, modern authors scribing for the Hard Case Crime imprint, the initial draw to HCC – and the continued satisfaction I get from reading through their catalogue – is in being exposed to classic writers I might’ve otherwise overlooked. It’s not purposeful, necessarily, but sometimes getting in to the heavyweights of a scene can be daunting: where do you start? There’s not only the breadth of catalogues to intimidate, but also the worry that if you start out with the most popular that you might end up being disappointed by the rest. Perhaps that sounds silly, but I like to follow threads when I read – series; authors. If there’s uneven output, I have trouble reconciling it; whereas when the greater works outweigh the lesser, it can be interesting to note the ebb and flow of trends between the two, enhancing the books that might not have seemed great at the outset. Then you have surprises like Robert Bloch: author of Psycho. Here’s a dude whom I can pretty confidently say I wouldn’t even have given a second glance if not for HCC reprinting these two novels, housed in a flip-book format (one book on one side; flip over for the other). I guess I just never would’ve aligned him with the noir / crime genre, and the film version of Psycho is cemented as the de facto take in my head, so I wouldn’t seek it out in book form, and thus would gloss over Bloch’s name in most contexts.
So there was some hesitation when seeing that credit on one side of this book’s covers: author of “Psycho.”
…Dashed away as soon as I started to dig in to Spiderweb, the tale of failed actor Eddie Haines’ getting wrapped up in a devious ‘web’ of cons and conmen. I’ve read a fair amount of new and old crime fiction at this point to get a feel for the language of the pulp genre – when it sounds natural, when it sounds forced – and certainly there’s a particular Chandler-esque archetype that emerged of the wise-cracking underdog. A lot of writers end up doing that really well, sometimes erring more toward gritty, sometimes more toward comedic, but recognizably of that template. Bloch’s Haines has some of that DNA, for sure, but just like Chandler has his own blazingly bright, hard-to-replicate variant, Bloch’s writing is unique: it’s incredibly human; whip-smart. Haines isn’t necessarily a “good guy,” or brilliant, but we’re with him every step of the way: Bloch gets us in his shoes, relating his bid for fame as the general us-versus-them struggle; makes the opportunist uptake of the con feel like the right choice by keeping Haines – and us – cautious of his partners-in-crime’s motives for getting him involved. And while there are other archetypes in here – a bald, plotting villain; femme fatales – they’re each given grounding personalities as well. We are, in other words, lockstep with Eddie’s thoughts and feelings as he’s set up as a faux professional advisor to the rich, and his inevitable attempts to pull out of the scheme don’t feel ill-advised or hasty. That it builds up to a stormy night showdown should be ridiculous and cliched but Spiderweb grabs us just as its title suggests: we’re immersed in the struggle, and Bloch leaves us on a haunting note.
Shooting Star is a bit more typical and a bit more dated reading, but just as entertaining in its own right. I mean, it features an eyepatched detective. Can’t get much more noir than that, eh? Where Eddie Haines earns our page-turning readership by staying on the level, Star’s Mark Clayburn plays more of the snarky stereotype. But this belies a similar honesty in how the story is told: Clayburn peels back on the snark at the right times, digging smartly to get the details on a Hollywood murder on which the cops have let their attentions dwindle. Thugs show up and threaten; connection go Straight To The Top!; but Bloch keeps it moving between these more predictable elements with crackling dialogue and that fun whodunnit sensibility that allows Clayburn – and us – to point the finger at potential villains along the way. The dated bit comes to the role weed plays in the story, as the murder is mixed with the drug trade. Understandably, weed was a “bigger deal” back in the 50s when this was written, and though there is some appreciable even-handedness at accepting its commonality, its effects feel a bit overplayed, especially with how that connects to Mark’s past. Not unrealistic, and again, I can understand the time and place being much different, but it’s the part of the book that reminds you that you’re reading something from a different era, versus the generally timeless feeling of the rest.
Both books are gripping reads, and show how Bloch could swing between more typical fare and something more devious – like Psycho, and horror in general – while maintaining an unbeatable confidence and individuality in his writing. And now that I’ve broken the seal on the writer, I can look forward to reading plenty more from him.