“Hard Case Crime, December 2020: Unlikely Masters” by Matthew Sorrento

On a few surprising releases from the noir fiction mainstay.

Readers of the Hard Case Crime series are rarely unsatisfied and regularly served a nice surprise. On the centennial Ray Bradbury’s birth came one, in the form or a collection of his crime fiction. With the author a formative one for so many (myself included), the edition collects some unknown treats, along with familiar hybrids of the kind of fantasy he was best known for, like “The Screaming Woman” (originally appearing in Today/Philadelphia Inquirer, May 27, 1951) and “Marionettes, Inc.” (Startling Stories, March 1949).

While sporting Bradbury’s mastery of the short fiction form, this collection offers a warm sense of familiarity.

While sporting Bradbury’s mastery of the short fiction form, this collection offers a warm sense of familiarity. His seemingly simple language regularly drops metaphors that will remain in memory (think of the stones’ throw of astronauts flying from a wrecked ship in his classic “Kaleidoscope,” from The Illustrated Man, 1951). The author’s sensibility runs throughout his crime stories – it’s a world shaped by clear moral delineations and family values, ones associated to Middle America in the era of “I Like Ike.” Philip K. Dick has spoken of the simplicity of SF/weird fiction, in that it doesn’t touch mature relationships, and while Dick certainly admired Bradbury, I can’t help wonder if he had him in mind when making the comment. Bradbury regarded the “The Small Assassin” (Dime Mystery, November 1946, and collected here) one of his best, and rightfully so, since it was the first genre story to address childbirth anxiety, long before the pill encouraged such sentiment. The tale also spawned the “evil baby” cycle in print and onscreen, beginning with The Bad Seed and Rosemary’s Baby, It’s Alive, and The Omen soon to follow. Bradbury’s story, though, is restricted to a male point of view (and like The Bad Seed, things intensify when the father is away). While “The Trunk Lady” (Detective Stories, 1944), about a boy distrusting elders due to a crime they hide, works as a predecessor to “Screaming,” Bradbury again captures a Blakean stage of passion, curiosity, and Innocence more than one of Experience. Thus, the author invokes nostalgia by channeling our memories of youth, when we had our golden ages of reading.

For this reason, I can’t binge on Bradbury anymore. I enjoyed the HCC collection in pieces, noting the kind of clever turns by the writer that I’ve spotted in his other famous works. Many of the stories invoke the best episodes of Suspense, the wonderful golden age radio program. The collection’s title story (Detective Tales, July 1944) – probably the truest piece of crime fiction included – shows the author attuned the trends around him, while keen on holding up the mirror. When a moll recruits a bank robber to double as her former lover, a deceased crime boss, Bradbury comments on masculinity as performance while distilling the gangster film tradition (its bloody rise to power and dead ends). The swift piece also hits notes similar to the criminal-centered Double Indemnity, a cornerstone noir also released in 1944.

For Hard Case devotees, this collection will be a nice change in the series’ impressive stream of work. This one will prime readers for the release of Bradbury-devotee Stephen King’s weird-crime thriller, Later, coming from HCC in March 2021.

While reading the Bradbury, I decided to return to Harlan Ellison’s 1958 gang novel Web of the City (released by HCC in 2013). I had just read Nat Segaloff’s wonderful biography of Ellison, A Lit Fuse (NESFA, 2017), which in its comprehensive coverage of the writer (with several surprises) also notes his connections to Bradbury. Web reads as a vibrant, well-made novel – evened out just right, with the set-up of 1950s NYC teen gang-member, Rusty Santoro, leading to his personal violation and revenge against a perpetrator. For anyone familiar with the writer, it’s easy to imagine the young HE studying other hardboiled novels to work this tale out evenly, typing at night in his U.S. Army barracks, which Segaloff vividly accounts.

Another surprising entry for the series, Joyce Carol Oates’ Triumph of the Spider Monkey, is one some HCC readers may find challenging. This 1975 novella shows Oates embracing the postmodernism and reflexivity of her contemporaries Donald Barthelme and Robert Coover, with the added appeal of diving into the fractured mind of a psychopath. Think of an extended version of Oates’ widely anthologized 1969 short story “How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again” with more rewards and bleak developments.

But when considering all the pieces as they fit, Spider Monkey unfolds like an exploded noir tale.

Oates has been productive in literary fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. Yet, as Hard Case editor Charles Ardai has noted, “she has pitched her tent equally (as did Graham Greene before her) in the literary fiction and crime fiction camps.” And when Ardai approached Oates at the Brooklyn Book Festival about reissuing one of her older titles with Hard Case, he “warned her that the cover would need to look like one of our pulp covers, with a half-naked lady on it, and she warmed my heart by exclaiming, ‘That would be the whole point!’”

The first person study of psychopath Bobbie Gotteson, with his obsessive rantings and regular disassociation, begins in hell. As a baby pulled from a locker, he’s born in pain, like Allen Baron’s noir protagonist in the 1961 film Blast of Silence. The remaining narrative brings to mind Humbert Humbert in Lolita, though Oates is in tune with the horrors of the mind in Nabokov’s inspiration, Poe. Gotteson recounts himself as a baby (possibly imagined, like the memories of the title character in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, John McNaughton’s 1986 film) and how he’s been manipulated by a male caretaker (sexually), hired hoods and, later while incarcerated in an especially devastating scene, a careless prison dentist.

Oates asserts her experimental stance, with occasional chapters consisting of Gotteson’s juvenilia in verse and interview transcripts – for some, to the novella’s detriment. Monkey leaps from experiences with a maternal figure, those on a film set, court, then back to the crime scenes:

“The hacking was only physical and incidental…. The stewardess who crawled under the sofa to observe me was not hallucinating when she said there were three of four of five of me, bounding everywhere around the room. She was correct. My disciples sprang out of my head when I willed them into birth….”

Always eerily convincing, Gotteson may appear scattered instead of realistically shattered. Spider also recalls her 1995 novella Zombie, which reads more like a carefully subjective horror novel.

But when considering all the pieces as they fit, Spider Monkey unfolds like an exploded noir tale. Oates dedicates each vignette towards a feeling, as she conducts the narrative like a musical piece. Through many of the images the author achieves the type of emotional interplay that runs throughout David Lynch’s noir-surreal masterpiece, Mulholland Drive. By including Oates’ 1976 follow-up story, “Love, Careless Love,” Hard Case extends the scope to one of Gotteson’s victim’s point of view.

“Charles Willeford’s Understudy for Death (written as The Understudy and published by a softcore paperback porn house as Understudy for Love) definitely stands out as one of the most unerotic erotic novels ever written – but even by comparison with other Hard Case Crime novels, which are a dark bunch, Understudy for Death is strong medicine. It’s not a whodunit, it’s a whydunit, and also, by the end, a who-else-will-do-it, and it’s gut-churning. It’s also fiercely funny, corrosively sad – it’s Willeford. There was never another like him.” –Charles Ardai

I include a discussion of Willeford here to indicate the outre approach to Hard Case’s rerelease of his 1961 book. Willeford is regretfully less known though back in discussion, thanks to the 2019 release of the film adaptation of his 1971 novel The Burnt Orange Heresy. (Our recent publication of Willeford’s lost story, “Sugar Water,” adds to a legacy more complex than many realize.)

Willeford hovers back to the enigma of the hard boiled originator, Hemingway, and his version of “The Killers,” if less fatalistic and in a comic mold.

Understudy is an idiosyncratic novel of detection, equally tense and humorous, that’s as rewarding as it is committed to turning away from genre basics. Willeford invokes Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1947, scripted by Richard Brooks), which itself borrowed from Citizen Kane in its set up with an enigmatic premise (taken from Hemingway’s 1928 hardboiled iceberg story). Brooks leads into an investigation of the opening enigma: why didn’t the Swede run from the two henchmen, after he was warned? In The Killers, the opening murder also spawns flashbacks (through Edmond O’Brien’s investigation) to uncover the opening mystery.

In Understudy, Willeford presents a mother’s murder-suicide of her children as the enigmatic premise, one to which reporter Richard Hudson will commit an extended investigation. Hudson is really a frustrated playwright. Like many writers in fiction, his tale is, in part, one of the artist’s struggle: he has taken up the late shift to make time to write dramas (unsuccessfully) during the day.

The investigation covers Willeford’s familiar Florida setting, in which Hudson encounters an available housewife. Essentially, it points to his casual inclination to stray – less from desire than going where roads may take him. What he learns about his own wife, something between a gift to him and a neurotic husband’s idea of betrayal, shows Willeford more interested in laying his character bare than getting to the bottom of a seamy crime (which The Killers, released in the studio system under the Production Code, was obliged to do).

Some payoffs come to Hudson, along with a fascinating bit of business featuring a seasoned writer of short fiction (making something of a commentary on the trade Willeford plied). The novel’s series of revelations employs a classic noir framework to upturn the promised payoff. Understudy’s a treat for those ready for a uniquely reflexive take. In a sense, Willeford hovers back to the enigma of the hard boiled originator, Hemingway, and his version of “The Killers,” if less fatalistic and in a comic tone.

Matthew Sorrento is Editor-in-chief of Retreats from Oblivion and Co-editor of Film International. He teaches film and media studies at Rutgers University in Camden.

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