Hatcher’s Junk Drawer #14: Crime Time

First of all, it’s very nice to be back. This enforced absence from columns was brought to you by CenturyLink, who had the internet out for most of a week here and then had to send me a new wireless modem since the old one was apparently out of date. It took so long to figure out because they have one of the worst customer-support interfaces this side of Comcast, but they’re the only game in town since I swore I’d use two tin cans and a string before I ever dealt with Comcast again. Boy, I miss Clearwire.

A nice kid named Dexter finally was able to provide actual customer service once I got past the layers of robot voicemail perimeter guards, and now we are back in business. It only took ten days and four separate calls, three of which were dropped while I was on hold.

Anyway. I’m back. This is the one I was in the middle of writing when we lost our internet: Continuing to clean up the review pile. Various tough-guy crime, noir, and mystery things… including, for the very first time ever, a Hard Case title I did not care for.

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Defenders by Brian Michael Bendis and David Marquez, volumes one and two. Let’s get this out of the way up front; if I had paid full price for these I would have felt robbed. Ten issues, spread out over two trade collections and the story doesn’t end so much as stop, teasing a big showdown that never happens. Even given Mr. Bendis’ tendency to ramble, this borders on inexcusable.

But since I only paid two dollars each, I am inclined to be forgiving. This is a fun comic and I am always up for Luke Cage and Jessica Jones as depicted by Bendis; those two were far and away my favorite thing about his run on Avengers (and The Pulse before that.) What story there is, is entertaining, and I don’t mind things being spun out long and lazy if it’s, y’know, going somewhere. As it is, these two books feel like act one of a three-act play that’s never coming back from the first intermission.

The premise is every bit as simple as is spelled out here…

…although Bendis gets a lot of mileage out of the idea that Wilson Fisk just MIGHT be going genuinely legit (spoiler: he’s not. Come ON.) and there are smaller arcs inside the larger who’s-the-real-Kingpin-going-to-be story, so it’s not completely unfinished. But a lot of the length is just padding, Bendis goofing with the characters and having fun. Which, okay, I’m in– he’s good at that kind of thing and it’s entertaining. Sooner or later, though, you gotta get somewhere. It’s not as though there’s some sort of big twist coming, or even much of a build; there’s nothing terribly innovative or anything about these comics. It’s mostly just a fair-to-middling story starring Marvel’s street level heroes and villains.

I haven’t said much about the art because there’s not that much to say. David Marquez is very good, and his artwork is always in service to the story. Unlike a lot of new faces on the scene, he seems genuinely to understand that his function is to tell a story… A story that, if it had actually concluded, I would have probably liked a lot. It’s a shame really; as the various attempts to reboot the Defenders title have gone, this was one of the better ones. As it is, I can’t really recommend it other than as a sort of curiosity.

*

Marvel Knights: Defenders of the Streets by Chuck Dixon and Ed Barreto.

Okay, THIS is more like it. This is almost the exact same premise as the Defenders book above, but done twenty years previously– yeah, I know, I can’t believe it’s been twenty years either. That’s actually the reason this book exists at all, it’s an anniversary collection; I don’t believe the original run appeared in paperback before now. It’s a pity there wasn’t more fanfare about this book at the time, because it’s really a lot of fun. It’s basically the same premise as the Defenders series above– get Marvel’s street-level heroes into a team book of their own– but this is Chuck Dixon writing and it’s the late 1990s, so instead of one long meandering arc we get a lot of short punchy ones. It went fifteen issues, starting in 1998, and it actually comes to more or less a real conclusion. Dixon’s not afraid to use the wider Marvel universe, either, so we get appearances from Dr. Strange, Ulik the troll, and a host of others.

The team itself is constantly in flux, but I guess you could say the roster consists of Daredevil, the Black Widow, Shang-Chi, Dagger from Cloak and Dagger, and later on we get Moon Knight and Luke Cage, as well. Often thrown into an uneasy alliance with the Punisher, even though the team was originally assembled to hunt him down.

The art is from Eduardo Barreto at the peak of his game and again, I don’t have much to say other than that it’s good comics. I don’t have anything to add to that except that this book reminds me again how sad it is that he’s no longer with us, because this was absolutely the perfect kind of gritty action series for him and it was such a treat to see work from him that was new to me.

Very much recommended.

*

The Colorado Kid by Stephen King.

I like Stephen King’s books a lot. I like Hard Case Crime a lot. I’ve been meaning to get around to this one for YEARS now, and I was delighted when they sent me an advance copy of the new edition with an added introduction from Charles Ardai, and a new painted cover by Paul Mann as well as new interior illustrations by Mann, Mark Summers, Mark Edward Geyer, and Kate Kelton. I adore the other King novel he did for Hard Case, Joyland, so I was really looking forward to this one.

And… it was a letdown. Kind of a huge letdown, to be honest.

Here’s the blurb, first of all:

On an island off the coast of Maine, a man is found dead. There’s no identification on the body. Only the dogged work of a pair of local newspapermen and a graduate student in forensics turns up any clues, and it’s more than a year before the man is identified.

And that’s just the beginning of the mystery. Because the more they learn about the man and the baffling circumstances of his death, the less they understand. Was it an impossible crime? Or something stranger still…?

No one but Stephen King could tell this story about the darkness at the heart of the unknown and our compulsion to investigate the unexplained. With echoes of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon and the work of Graham Greene, one of the world’s great storytellers presents a moving and surprising tale whose subject is nothing less than the nature of mystery itself…

It’s technically true. That’s what the book’s about. But it’s not what the book IS. and here’s where I spoil it for you– there is nothing to spoil. The solution of the mystery is that there is no solution. Nothing goes anywhere. There is no arc. It’s a young woman interning at a Maine newspaper and the unsolved mystery is a story the two old-guy reporters tell her as sort of a test of character, to see if it bothers her as much as it does them, I guess on the theory that if she is as tantalized and baffled as they were, she’ll make a good journalist. Or something. And even that very shallow character journey isn’t really resolved.

Because it’s Stephen King, it’s still a fairly good read. The characters are entertaining and King can’t help but do a solid, suspenseful build of a narrative… which makes it all the more maddening when it just stops.

I did enjoy the illustrations. It’s a cool package.

But that’s not enough to recommend it. Even King’s vaguely defensive, vaguely apologetic afterword extolling the pleasures of the tantalizing nature of the unknowable doesn’t excuse passing off this inflated vignette as an actual story. I get it, yes, the idea of something unknowable was the point. I don’t care. It’s nice to try narrative experiments, sure, but this one is practically a bait-and-switch. Hard Case is a BRAND, damn it. This is not what they are supposed to be doing. This meandering let’s-talk-about-the-lure-of-the-unsolved, without actually resolving anything at all including character arcs that are set up and never paid off, is the sort of literary bullshit you see from a collegiate creative writing workshop, not Hard Case Crime. I expect better from them and from King, and especially when it’s the two together. (We did eventually get something much better, with Joyland, and boy, am I glad that was the first one I read and not this.)

I had previously considered Rose Madder the lamest of King’s books (and that one’s still readable, just kind of meh) but this one elbows that one out by a lot. Skip it. It’s for King completists only.

*

Ms. Tree: One Mean Mother by Collins and Beatty, and Killing Quarry by Max Allan Collins.

Okay, this is more like it. Hard Case is definitely on-brand with these two.

I have to admit I don’t have a lot to say about the latest Quarry novel except that like all of them, I really enjoyed it and it’s easily tied for my favorite Collins series ever. The nice thing about the Quarry books is that although they have an interior chronology and there is a timeline to the series, Collins jumps around on it a lot so you can pick up any of the books and not feel like you came in late. This one takes place in the later part of Quarry’s life and brings back a character from a book I haven’t read yet, but I was never lost or felt like there were things I should have been told. Like all the books, it’s got sex and violence and a taut suspenseful mystery at its core; if you like the other Quarry books you’ll like this one. John D. MacDonald once said he felt like he was writing one long novel about Travis McGee, not a series of novels, and Quarry’s kind of like that. If you’re in for one you are in for all of them.

As it happens, the other new Hard Case volume from Collins features my other favorite thing he ever worked on– Ms. Tree.

I was with Ms. Tree almost from the beginning, way back in 1982. I’d read a review in The Comics Journal that made it sound really cool, as far as I was concerned, though the Journal hated it. I’d read my first Mike Hammer literally a month previously, and the premise– essentially, Velda finally marries Mike Hammer and then he’s killed on their wedding night and she goes after his killers– sounded awesome.

Moreover, though Terry Beatty was new to me and I thought the art looked a little stiff, he was a perfect fit for the strip; his work had a real 1950s crime-comics vibe that I later learned was deliberate.

I finally got to see it for myself when I came across this issue of Eclipse at Looking Glass Books. I was already interested, but the cover absolutely sold me.

To this day, it’s my favorite thing I’ve ever seen from Paul Gulacy, and I really hope that Titan eventually puts this on the cover of one of the upcoming Ms. Tree collections.

Anyway, I’ve been on board ever since, with all the various incarnations of the character in comics, in prose, and even– sort of–in film.

(Real Time: Siege at Lucas Street Market is a straight-to-DVD adaptation of the Ms. Tree short story “Inconvenience Store,” written and directed by Collins himself. Because the Ms. Tree film rights were elsewhere, the Brinke Stevens character is not actually NAMED Michael Tree, but so far it’s as close to a real Ms. Tree movie as we’ve got.)

Anyway, the new collection from Titan actually starts at the end of the line, almost– it’s five issues of the Ms. Tree quarterly DC put out back in the 1990s. By this time Collins and Beatty were at the top of their game and as Collins points out, he made the first of these stories an easy jumping-on point for new readers.

I don’t mind. Some might be fussed about not starting from the beginning, but those early stories already have been collected in book form; all of the Eclipse run, and some of the Renegade Press as well. I do hope Titan gets around to them, bur as a launch, I think starting with the DC stuff was the right call.

Anyway. Enjoyed these very much and looking forward to the next installments of both.

*

This is getting long, but I did want to mention– speaking of Hammer– that there’s a new DVD set of the Stacy Keach Mike Hammer TV show out. Finally.

Now, there are several different versions of this show out there on home video and it gets confusing to keep track of the different incarnations of it. You have the original pilot movies, then the first season and a half of the regular series in 1984…. and then Stacy Keach was busted for cocaine in London and the show went on hiatus for the duration of the trial and subsequent jail time. When Keach was released in 1986, the show was revived as The New Mike Hammer and ran one more season.

There was one reunion TV-movie in 1989, then that was it for a while. (We will not speak of the Rob Estes Hammer.) It was revived again in 1997, as Mike Hammer Private Eye, for syndication, with no one from the first series returning except Keach himself. And finally, in 2008, Keach returned as Hammer for full-cast audio plays from Blackstone Audio, with one scripted by none other than Max Allan Collins.

This new DVD release is the post-jail season, from 1986. (It has always wryly amused me that apparently both Mike Hammer and I got clean and sober around the same time.) Keach is in fine form as Hammer and, one supposes, eager to prove he can still carry a series. He’s never not good as Hammer but the energy in these eighties shows covers the ugly fact that the scripts just aren’t quite as good as the 1984 ones were.

Frustratingly, the best of the Keach Hammers — the first season from 1984– are still unavailable anywhere except as bootlegs or the occasional YouTube video.

The hell of it was, that was when Spillane was alive and actually consulting on the production, and you had guys like mystery novelist Joe Gores writing scripts. I have no idea why the home video people are determined to work backwards to the good stuff. But I’m grateful we have least gotten to 1986.

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That’s all for now. Very glad to be back in business here and I should be here again next week with something cool.

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5 Comments

  1. Edo Bosnar

    Whoa! A new Quarry novel?! I swear I was just checking Amazon about a month ago to see if there were any new Quarry novels in the pipeline and didn’t find anything. Well, that’s moving close to the top of the want-list…
    And speaking of want-lists, lots (hell, all) of the Ms. Tree comics are on it. Some day – I hope – I’ll finally get to read those.

    Thanks for the tip on Colorado Kid. I was interested in picking that one up some time ago, before this new edition, but since it was sold out pretty quickly, the prices for used copies were pretty exorbitant.
    As for disappointments from Hard Case, they’re rare, but I’ve come across a few. The one that really sticks out in my head is Christa Faust’s Choke Hold. It’s a sequel to the quite good Money Shot, but it lacks the charm of that one; instead, it’s just bleak and ultimately depressing, and way, too violent, even for a pulpy noir story.

  2. “I am always up for Luke Cage and Jessica Jones as depicted by Bendis; those two were far and away my favorite thing about his run on Avengers”
    Picking up a cheap copy of one of the Alias TPBs, I was surprised to discover it was as good as I’d heard (sooo not a Bendis fan). Agree about Luke/Jessica in Avengers.
    I remember the Marvel Knights run, particularly Punisher chuckling about what a do-gooder DD is (“Choir boy. Nuns must have loved you.”).
    I loved Ms. Tree, which I started with around the sixth issue and followed until half the pages were the uninteresting Johnny Dynamite. I didn’t realize “One Mean Mother” was the DC stuff, most of which I have — I’ll look for the TPBs of the earlier stuff, then.
    I’ve read First Quarry, mostly to see how Collins handled the period setting (I was writing something set around the same time). It was good, even though I haven’t gotten around to more

  3. I didn’t realize that new Ms. Tree was the DC stuff either, but that’s cool. I have some of that.

    I too was disappointed by The Colorado Kid back when I read it, for the same reason you were. That maddeningly unresolved mystery was annoying. The weird thing was that if I remember correctly, the SyFy/Sci-Fi show Haven was supposedly based on that book, and I could never figure out how or why, based on what I read about that show.

  4. Jeff Nettleton

    I haven’t read it; but I remember when The Colorado Kid came out, back in my bookseller days. I had heard good things about the Hard Case line and loved the old school pulp covers; but I laughed every time I saw that title. There was a pro wrestler in the Memphis/Nashville region in that time frame, named Mike Rapada, who was known as the Colorado Kid, who had a thing for zebra-striped gear. he was made NWA World Champion, long after that meant anything and when most fans would remark, “I thought the NWA was gone…” His version of the belt even had the zebra pattern on the leather. I would walk past our bestseller display (any Stephen King book pretty much debuted on it and stayed on for at least a quarter) and would laugh, because all I could think of was the book was missing zebra stripes.

    I have to go along with the first segment of the Mike Hammer series vs The New Mike Hammer. Loved Stacy Keach in the role, though. Would have loved to see Hammer work a case with Lt Columbo.

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