The world is a better place now that Hard Case Crime is back in it. The small publisher, which offers a selection of salacious mystery reprints and smutty original crime thrillers, went on hiatus last year when Dorchester, the press that published and distributed its books, went e-books-only. While Hard Case does e-books, there's good reason for print editions (put out by new publisher Titan Books)—Hard Case novels work best when they're experienced as a squarish lump of reconstituted wood pulp tucked into your palm.
As if to reassure the discerning noir aficionado that they're in good, sleazy hands, the first wave of the refreshed Hard Case series is packed with an explosive mix of sex and violence. Choke Hold, Christa Faust's new original novel, features a porn star on the lam who gets wrapped up in a world of drug running, mixed martial arts, and dirty, dirty sex. Faust's protagonist, Angel Dare (!!), is the perfect narrator for this world where everyone is using everyone else for something. Here's how Angel Dare travels the country without being noticed by police or the mob:
His name was Jim Falmworth and he owned a small company that manufactured a machine for stimulating injured muscles with electric pulses at varying strengths and speeds. He was traveling down the east coast, visiting the offices of chiropractors and physical therapists to try and sell them the new improved version of the machine. He liked anal sex, but his wife wouldn't do it. I would. I rode with Jim all the way to South Carolina.
Hard Case isn't the only criminal-minded revival this year. Grove has reissued nine Patricia Highsmith novels, culminating in the release of The Tremor of Forgery, which the New Yorker referred to as "her best novel," a blurb on the cover helpfully informs us. I respectfully disagree—her Tom Ripley is as valuable as James Bond in the literary world—but it's definitely one of her very best.
Set in the 1960s, Forgery follows a young writer named Howard Ingham. He has moved to Tunisia to work on a short film and a novel, and soon he finds himself disconnected from friends and family as personal crises erupt back home. He loses his moral footing as he settles in with other expatriated Americans, including a bisexual painter and a patriotic radio broadcaster who sees himself as a frontline soldier in the Cold War (as they become acquainted, Ingham secretly nicknames the latter OWL, an acronym for his endless speeches about Our Way of Life). Ingham assaults a local with questionable results, and his first worry isn't whether he's hurt the man but whether his friends will think less of him if they find out.
Frequent Highsmith themes recur here like slightly sinister old friends—dark secrets, ambiguity, a relatively clueless fiancée who comes from wealth. But the genius and freshness of Forgery is in its setting: By placing Ingham's budding sociopathy in an Islamic nation, he becomes a stand-in for United States foreign policy in the Middle East. He makes friends with the wrong people, casually condescends to the locals, and offers different stories to everyone, resulting, inevitably, in a disastrous communication breakdown. Highsmith projects her usual tiny paranoid interior canvases to a global stage, and the broadening of scope suits her work perfectly.
But it's no surprise that a Highsmith book should be good. Sometimes, a publisher uncovers a forgotten talent so gifted that you're shocked they escaped your notice before: Melville House just reprinted the five-book Factory series by British author Derek Raymond. Originally written in the 1980s, the series stars an unnamed detective in the Unexplained Deaths Department of the London PD, "by far the most unpopular and shunned branch of the service." He explains what life in Unexplained Deaths is like: "We work on obscure, unimportant, apparently irrelevant deaths of people who don't matter and who never did. We have the lowest budget, we're last in line for allocations, and promotion is so slow that most of us never get past the rank of sergeant."
By not naming his detective, Raymond offers a blank slate and invites readers to apply their own personalities to him as he progresses slowly through the necessary police work of interviews. About half of the first book in the series, He Died with His Eyes Open, involves the detective launching into uncomfortable conversations with strangers about a schlubby failure of a man found beaten to death in a bad part of town.
The Factory series comes alive through the tense mixture of optimism and pessimism inherent in the premise: It's the story of a man who devotes his life to finishing the stories of the ignored. On the one hand, he's willing to fight anyone and uncover any number of dirty secrets to earn those conclusions—and, oh, the secrets he uncovers along the way are dirty—but on the other hand, there's always another corpse waiting for him back at the office, begging for its forgotten story to be told. He'll never give up, though; the most important stories are never completely lost.