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HCC 059 - 2009 - Robert McGinnis. Horizontal covers are freaking awesome.

A while ago somebody told me I don’t read enough “new” Hard Case Crimes, so I picked up some from the bookstore went I went on a road trip: Losers Live Longer, Gun Work, Casino Moon, and Fake I.D. I got into Hard Case because of its classic mystery reprints, and didn’t give the modern books half a thought until I’d picked up most of the line. I was curious as to how they’d compare with the older stuff, and with other new mystery novels—Hard Case isn’t exactly a giant name in the mystery field, though it is one of the biggest and best retro/pulp reprint company.

Losers Live Longer (LLL) by Russell Atwood dates all the way back to 2009, and had never before seen publication when it became Hard Case Crime #059. It’s the second of Atwood’s books to feature private eye Payton Sherwood, the first being East of A, which isn’t a Hard Case (yet). The last private eye Hard Case I read, Kill Now, Pay Later started me off on a first-person hardboiled private eye bender, which I continued with LLL.

Just furrowing my forehead over that when the morning’s white-noise blackened to pitch with a sudden thick-sick meat-thud sound and a mangled-pig squeal of swerving tires. Brakes screeched and…then nothing. The city struck dumb.

Without even thinking about it, I was out of my office and going barefoot down the steps three at a time, not caring as my office door swung shut behind me, as if I knew in advance what it was, what I would see before I saw.

Nothing paranormal about it though, only me naturally imagining the worst that could happen. Because had it truly been a premonition, I would have at least known beforehand to grab my keys on the way, instead of locking myself out.

Legendary detective George Rowell is dead—struck by a car—right outside private eye Payton Sherwood’s office/apartment. Rowell was onto something major, and went to Sherwood to get help flushing out a tail. With his death, Sherwood decides to pick up Rowell’s case and follow its trail of crumbs. He’s not the best man for the job, but he could sure use some cash, and he’s not entirely convinced that Rowell’s death was an accident… Soon enough, Sherwood is neck-deep in intrigue: on the trail of a rogue investment scam artist, a drug-addled TV star, and a bewitching femme fatale with a mysterious past.

A lot of standard detective/private eye tropes at work here, but there are some nice twists that make the book stand out to me. As with all first-person PoV detective stories, the author has to have a solid voice in order to really sell it. Sherwood’s voice hits the mark; he’s a likeable everyman, but something of a loser—a near failure at playing private eye, even though he really loves doing it. Come to think of it, he’s kind of like a hardboiled Woody Allen in terms of self-deprecation. The book is littered with a lot of pop-culture references, and pretty hardcore cussin’, neither of which bothered me but could upset a purist.

It’s worth noting that Atwood has a true flair for describing the atmosphere and setting, which would be lower Manhattan. There’s some truly poignant descriptions of New York City, and as Sherwood jumps around the island looking for suspects and clues, we get to see Atwood describe quite a bit of ground.  Atwood’s writing style is very crisp, like there’s a real snap to his step, which goes together well with the great descriptions of New York and Sherwood’s narration.

I should mention the whole Sherwood/Atwood angle: the names are pretty similar, reminiscent of Lawrence Block and his “Lenny Blake” characters. One could argue Sherwood is a good Mary Sue example, save for the fact that he’s such a blatant loser who barely keeps steady employment as a detective. If the protagonist has to steal shoes out of a trash can, he’s no longer the author’s vicarious Mary Sue fantasy… that’s too pathetic to idealize. Instead, I think the issue is that people expecting a true hardboiled narrator might find Sherwood too much of a loser for their liking.

As for the plot…it’s not bad, it’s not great, somewhat predictable near the end when the pieces have been uncovered, while near the start it’s as indecipherable to the reader as it is to Sherwood. There are numerous twists, and several threads that come at you unexpectedly, so there is quite a lot of complexity even though the book is slightly formulaic. The big problem is that LLL is roughly mediocre, above average, not strong or original enough to be a smash hit but well-rounded and likeable enough to still be enjoyable. You’ve probably read a dozen other detective stories in this same vein—there’s a mystery, the P.I. solves it—but that doesn’t mean LLL isn’t worth reading, seeing how you’ve probably read a bunch of other detective novels in the same style.

This was another one I ended up really liking, even if the McGinnis cover, again, does nothing for me. (Heresy; yes, I am aware. As a horizontal piece it’s the most striking in the line, but those hollow cheeks and dead stare are a major turn-off.) The main character was flawed enough to be a realistic everyman alternative to the superhuman detectives who populate most detective novels. Plus, LLL was brimming with twists, and was a tough one to forecast an ending for. It’s a cool little novel, very enjoyable if you like straight detective capers, which I have a soft spot for…hence the abundance of Hard Case.