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HCC 021 - 1986 - illo by Chuck Pyle

Tracy Bateman is a freelance film editor with a less than ideal personal life. He’s divorced, and his ex-wife, Lauren, is off with his best friend and occasional employer Kevin, an inept and untrustworthy executive. Bateman’s in the middle of an alcoholic depression when Kevin gives him a call for a film editing job in Italy… with the hint that the job will entail more than simple editing. While working on the documentary film, Bateman finds out what that “more” is: Lauren’s been sent to Europe for a drug smuggling job. Not about to let his ex-wife do something that dangerous—a job Kevin attempted in the past, resulting in the death of a mutual friend—Bateman takes on the role of drug trafficker. And when he realizes that’s what Kevin expected him to do, he has to fight against his self-destructive, depressive nature, and do something about it…

From the first page, this book makes one thing clear: it’s one of the top five, if not the best itself, well-written books in the Hard Case line. The writing is extravagant, with vivid imagery dripping with description. The language is smooth but flowery, very engaging and a pleasure to read. It gives a wonderful feeling of both character and setting, and stands out in the mystery/crime crowd.

However, the novel is very, very flawed. Bell is an acclaimed author, but not a genre one; therefore, the mystery and crime aspects are painfully predictable. I’ve seen several reviews praising its “unexpected ending.” I felt it was broadcast from early on, and while I hoped it wouldn’t be that predictable, I was proven wrong: it was exactly as I’d expected. The novel’s beautiful first section—mostly introspection and character building—moves on to a long, dull section about film editing. It’s a common occurrence in crime novels (and moreso in men’s action novels of the period) to dive into great detail about something rather unrelated to the plot; here, it’s all about film production and philosophy. By sheer frequency alone, these segments make the book drag rather than enhance anything; before getting anywhere near a plot, we spend a huge section learning about film editing.

Thankfully, the book makes a rapid turn around the halfway point, and gets into its drug-smuggling plot. Here, we see a multitude of strange and interesting characters: Bulgarian thugs and drug traffickers, a hitman living in the suburbs of Paris. While the characters are unique, the plot isn’t; it’s pretty straightforward, and ends up at the predictable ending I called from the start. I was hoping to be surprised, but no; the book makes its last intentions very clear, and then spends far too much time getting there.

The cover by Chuck Pyle is one of my favorite Hard Case covers: a hot dame, carrying a mysterious briefcase, with a pair of sketchy individuals menacing her from the shadows. The orange background gives it a retro vibe, and between the color and the scenery design, it feels like the novel’s Italian setting. Sadly, it—and the tagline “She was a pawn in their deadly game…”—has little to do with the book. Yes, she was a pawn, but only appears for a handful of chapters, none of which depict what’s happening on the cover. It reminds me of those old pulp paperbacks for authors like Mark Twain and Truman Capote, where they drummed up sales by making the novel sound sleazier than it was and de-emphasizing the book’s literary nature. I’d had a string of excellent Hard Case reads judged by cover alone, and this one broke that trend.

Thus far, there’s only been one Hard Case Crime novel I didn’t really like: the confused mess that is David Dodge’s string of quasi-autobiographical set pieces, The Last Match. Straight Cut was more than a letdown. In terms of writing, it’s top-notch; in character, it’s pretty good; in terms of plot, originality, entertainment value, and so on, it’s mediocre and predictable. It takes too long to become engaging, and when it does, it neither rises above the crowd to defy the genre, nor does it fulfill the genre criteria to be a solid if straightforward novel. The plot is meandering, vague at points, and could use some tightening up. Worse, it’s plain boring, for large chunks of the novel. Most damning, it’s a character-based novel, with some relatively strong and interesting characters, but this left it too weak on the plot side: there’s no buildup, no tension, and subsequently no payoff.

Straight Cut is a very divisive book: some people love it and consider it a cult classic, some people hate it with a fiery passion. I wasn’t too thrilled with it, finding it boring, then predictable, than unsatisfying: a lukewarm attempt at a crime novel. I ended up putting it on the back-burner to focus on a nine-hundred-page history of the origins of World War Two (which was fantastic, thank you very much). Your mileage may vary. Keep in mind that it is a slow novel, demanding a lot of patience and some knowledge of Kierkegaard. I like Kierkegaard; Straight Cut, not so much. My suggestion is to avoid it unless you’re absolutely sure you’d like it; by simple virtue of the number of negative reviews it receives, it’s not a book for everyone.