by Domenic Stansberry
(Hard Case Crime) $6.99
This year's Edgar Award nominations were very different than any other year's: I'd actually read one of the nominated books. I'm the ultimate weather vane for literary winds, and I believe that Best Paperback Original nominee The Confession, by Domenic Stansberry, is a vanguard of change. The fact that Hard Case Crime published the book was enough to get me to open its pages. Hard Case may be the best new American publisher to appear in the last decade.
Last year, to no trumpets at all, Hard Case began putting out pulp paperbacks that can fit in a jeans back pocket. The books feature lurid old-fashioned cover paintings, the likes of which are usually only seen these days on postcards at independent bookstores. Some of the books are originals and some are reprints. All of them are full of grit and muscle, adventure and sex, written with a kind of barely restrained agony that can only be produced by guys who aren't really worried about their reputation. There's not an ounce of froth in the lot. Pulp has returned, in all its sleazy finery.
The irony is that crime books do most of their business in the suburban mystery-bookstore ghetto. They escape the purview of stuffy literary tastemakers, who weep that no one reads quality fiction anymore, and self-styled revolutionaries, who rant that literature no longer addresses the gritty realities of American life. Of late, real literature is encroaching on the territory of Sneaky Pie Brown the crime-solving kittycat. But the ghosts of Raymond Chandler, Patricia Highsmith, and Jim Thompson are returning to reclaim their rightful places, and not just in "appreciation" pieces by Walter Kirn in the New York Review of Books.
There are reasons why the pulp revival has been neglected. The genre is not without its clichés; a lot of the books star tough-talking former lawyers who've become private investigators out of financial necessity. There are often smokin' hot district attorneys who get with the hero around page 160. People who stay up all night drunk inevitably get dragged out of bed at dawn for a beating. The cover for Kiss Her Goodbye by Allan Guthrie, which Hard Case will publish on March 7, features a woman kneeling over a dead body. She's wearing a leather jacket and a red bustier and thigh-high skirt combo, and is holding a baseball bat. The tagline reads, "For what she went through, somebody had to pay…"
In The Confession's cover painting, we see a pair of blue gloves holding a taut blue-and-white striped tie. Those gloves are moving toward an auburn-haired woman whose one-piece chocolate-brown business suit can barely conceal her cantaloupes. "Was he an innocent man… or a depraved killer?" the tagline asks. The protagonist of The Confession, Jake Danser, has one of those names that only appear in novels. And the same can be said for his job; unlike anyone you know, he's a forensic psychologist. He drives a fast car, has a beautiful wife who is a tiger in bed, and retreats to a special hideout when he wants to think. Much of the story reads like boilerplate; as in many books like this, characters are offhandedly introduced in one chapter and then become a major point 100 pages later, long after we've forgotten about them.
But the book makes up for its clunky police procedural with a full catalog of pulp's strengths. The best pulp books don't skimp on the unpleasant truths. Long expository passages about aberrant psychology pass by without seeming boring. There are gooey, creepy sex scenes and a dead-on parody of the bourgeois-crunchy values of upper-middle- class Marin County. Jake Danser is the author's revenge on every ponytailed, yoga-practicing, fast-car-driving ex-hippie you've ever hated. Even if he ends up innocent of the physical crime, he's still guilty of the heinous original sin of yuppie jackassery. It's impossible to buy anything he says or thinks.
He feels so… American. And so does pulp. Hard Case Crime revives an American art form as authentic as jazz, but not nearly as revered. (Maybe there's still time: Hard Case announced earlier this week that it will be the exclusive publisher of The Colorado Kid, the next novel by Stephen King.) This summer, Hard Case crime will unload a bucket of books. Some of them are new, like King's book, while others are reprints from writers, such as Donald Westlake and David Dodge, who are begging for mainstream revival. Check out this teaser for the reprint of Branded Woman by Wade Miller, author of Touch of Evil : "Beautiful jewel smuggler Cay Morgan landed in Mazatlán with a gun in her purse--and a vendetta in her heart." It sounds great. And I could just drown in that cover painting.