Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Books: Hard Case Crime Report

I think of all Hard Case’s covers, the one for Donald E. Westlake’s Somebody Owes Me Money (1969) may be my favorite. I’ve always been a sucker for ... New York cabs.

Chet Conway drives one for a living. He’s a little steamed when a fare gives him the name of a sure thing at the track in lieu of a tip. Until the horse comes in, and Chet ends up nearly a thousand bucks to the good. When he stops by to claim his winnings, he finds his bookie dead and several rival gangs thinking he’s responsible.

At times this book reads like a comic riff on The Hunter, the novel Westlake wrote as Richard Stark that was filmed as Point Blank and Payback. Chet, like Parker, wants what he’s owed, no more and no less. And he’s willing to piss off plenty of people bigger and meaner than he is to get his due.

It’s typical Westlake, fleet and funny with a crackerjack ending. If you can’t get laughs out of Chet responding to an adversary with, “The feeling is mutual ... In fact, the feeling is paramutual,” or an argument about whether one can be winged in the head or only in the arm ... well, I can’t help you.

You couldn’t ask for a bigger change of pace than The Murderer Vine, a 1970 novel by Shepard Rifkin based on the deaths of three civil rights workers later fictionalized in Mississippi Burning. New York P.I. Joe Dunne, who has on occasion demonstrated a willingness to step outside the law if the price is right, is approached by the father of a college student gone missing during a voter registration drive in the Deep South. The man knows his son is dead. He’ll pay Dunne to find the body. And even more to execute the perpetrators.

Rifkin shows Dunne meticulously building a cover story for himself, then exposes how fragile that façade is in the hothouse atmosphere of the times. He muddies the waters by having Dunne enjoy the company of the very men he’s stalking. And he delivers an object lesson in the skillful use of dialect. He’s so determined to avoid romanticizing the genre that he becomes self-conscious about it in the late going, blunting the impact of the ending. But I’m still thinking about it days later. Vine is one of the strongest novels Hard Case has reissued.