Monday, August 15, 2011

Hard-Boiled- Bill Pronzini & Jack Adrian, Ed.

There's no shortage of great crime fiction anthologies, no matter what your tastes may be. But HARD-BOILED, edited by Bill Pronzini and Jack Adrian, is still my all-time favorite. I will admit some bias here, because there are many stories from the '50's in this collection, and I find that the best writers of the genre tend to come from that decade.

Anthologies are by their very nature a mixed bag. Usually, for every one great story you’ll have to slog through two or more that leave you cold. Not so with this one. HARD-BOILED comes very close to being the perfect anthology. The editors have terrific taste, and they’ve chosen an amazing selection of hardboiled and noir stories, chronological from the ‘20’s up to the early ‘90’s (when this book was published). The majority of the stories are from the ‘30’s and the ‘50’s, since (as the editors point out) those were the twin Golden Eras of this particular genre.

Honestly, just about every story in this one is at least very good, and more than a handful are down-right brilliant. Here are some highlights:

1929. “Round Trip” by W.R. Burnett, in which a Chicago gangster gets a less-than-friendly reception when he takes a sabbatical to Toledo. Hardboiled, and quietly funny.

1931. “Mistral”, by Raoul Whitfield—a private detective is ordered by his agency to find an American gangster in Genoa, but suffers a crisis of conscience when he realizes the agency’s clients want to murder the man. Fast and tough, and still humane.

1934. “Trouble-Chaser”, by Paul Cain, is the story of a ‘problem solver’ on the fringes of the law who tries to sort things out for a friend accused of murder—by stacking all the cards against the real culprit. Cain was about as hardboiled a writer as you can find.

1953. “Black Pudding”, David Goodis—pursued by gangsters, Ken finds himself aided by a scarred, opium-addicted girl every bit as victimized as himself, and sets out to turn the tables on his enemies. Beautifully tense noir.

1955. “Mama’s Boy”, David Alexander—one of the more disturbing stories, a brutal body-builder who makes his cash by using older women decides he wants to take it one step further and beat his next victim to death. But his anger proves to be his undoing.

1956. “Home”, by Gil Brewer, is the story of a young black man, home from college, and the awful moment in which he forgets where he is and is victimized by the hateful residents of the city. Stark and chilling.

1957. “A Piece of Ground”, Helen Neilson—all the Farmer wants is to save up enough cash so he can go home and purchase a farm with his wife and children. But then he gets involved with a seemingly kind-hearted whore and a hustler who says he can double the Farmer’s money. The Farmer may ‘buy the farm’ a lot sooner than he thought.

1987 “To Florida”, by Robert Sampson—Teller kills the landlord, takes his cash, and with his less-than-attractive girl in tow heads south. It doesn’t take things long to fall apart, though, when the girlfriend starts to fear Teller’s growing violence. A bleak, nihilistic little story.

1989. “Bonding”, by Faye Kellerman. A bored teenage girl turns to prostitution just because she can, seduces her step-father, and manipulates him into murdering her mother. This is probably the boldest, most disturbing story in the book, and had me on the edge of my seat. Brilliant stuff.

Aside from these noted, there are of course many of the usual names—Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, James M. Cain, John D. MacDonald, Jim Thompson, Lawrence Block, Elmore Leonard, James Ellroy… and the list goes on. It’s a veritable who’s who. But the real strength of this book is in the number of stories by writers you might not be familiar with. I guarantee, however, that you’ll want to look up more of their work when you’re done.

If you're relatively new to reading hard-boiled/noir crime fiction, or if you're an old hand looking for some sharp story-telling, this is one you don't want to pass up.


  1. Haven't read that Brewer story. I'll be putting this anthology on my list. I've never been disappointed by anything that Pronzini has edited (or written, for that matter). The dude is a bona fide crime fiction kingpin.

  2. Heath--I have several of those thick pulp anthologies and HARD-BOILED is definitely my favorite. I would have to go with BLACK PUDDING as one of the best efforts in the book. Nobody paints a bleaker picture of the world than Goodis.

    I've had this book for about 15 years, and after reading your rundown of it, I may have to refresh my memory of some of those other great stories.