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What had I scraped up so far? A handsome little hood named Halliday who peddled smut because they wouldn’t let him be a movie star. What did he want? To be a bigger hood. To burn girls’ faces who turned him down. To say hi to Esther Williams again.

Then there was a bigger hood named Scarpa who’d been told off to keep an eye on Halliday. What did he want? To not be bothered by little punks like Halliday and me.

Then there was a great big hood named Burri who’d done the telling. What’d he want? A nice civilized drink and some little dry cookies. He was an old man, and wanted everything nice. What would he do to someone who kept things from being nice?

In a fit of irony, I somehow missed Hard Case’s first big hit—Max Phillips’ Fade to Blonde. Phillips is better known for his poetry and literary writing (The Artist’s Wife, Snakebite Sonnet), winning an Academy of American Poets Prize and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. Of course, he also co-founded Hard Case Crime, giving him pulp street cred. And Fade to Blonde was one of the best-reviewed books from the company’s early years (almost but not quite eight years ago, a fact that boggles my mind). So while I tracked it down with enthusiasm, I’m also a little leery to see if it stands up to all that positive acclaim.

HCC 002 – September 2004 – illo by Gregory Manchess

Rebecca LaFontaine only wanted to be a Hollywood star, not a hat-check girl. And least of all did she want her life threatened by Lance Halliday, a two-bit hood peddling dirty films. So when he said he’d throw lye in her face after she declined a starring role, she went looking for hired muscle—and found Ray Corson, failed screenwriter turned construction worker. Ray can’t turn down a beautiful girl with a purse full of cash and a sob-story. But dealing with Halliday is more of a challenge than Rebecca made it out as. To get at Lance, Ray has to deal with other hoods higher up in the Syndicate ladder. In this shadowed reflection of Hollywood, everyone has a closet full of skeletons. The ones Rebecca’s hiding are the most dangerous secrets of all…

Truth be told, I had a hard time following how the plot and the characters’ motivations flowed together. Around page 150, Ray was shaking down dope-dealers, and I had to stop and backtrack to remember how he got there. At first it’s logical enough: he doesn’t trust Rebecca’s sob-story, so he investigates Lance Halliday’s background, along with the Mafiosos he works for. For some reason, this involves meeting with them in person (individually) for one reason or another, which culminates in the “working for the Mafia” angle that the back cover reveals—I guess because they’re not too fond of Halliday, and it’ll be easier to stop/kill him for Rebecca when Ray’s got the Mafia’s okay? The plot was compelling enough, and the pacing was smooth, but it felt like the characters weren’t so much goal-oriented as they were just bumbling into new plot developments.

Ray as a character has… anger issues. In an early chapter, when his boss at the construction company is behind on paychecks, Ray picks him up and starts strangling him. A few chapters later, a couple of Mafia hoods show up to push him around; this triggers Ray’s Elite Ninja Boxer Skills and he ruins these guys. There’s a few little bits to his character that I didn’t buy, like that intense anger. Ray came to Hollywood to be a screenwriter, but you never see him write down anything more complicated than an address. And just because someone can box doesn’t mean they have the cool nerve to street-fight a pair of hired guns into the hospital. On the bright side, his first-person perspective makes for compelling reading, and his ice-cool, bone-dry wit makes for some snappy dialogue.

Philips’ lean prose is masterful; minimalistic, but with wry insight and sharp dialogue. It weaves its way through a cutthroat game of intrigue and murder, a game where everyone holds a hand full of dark secrets close to their chests. At first I figured it was set in the modern era, like the other “new” Hard Cases I read were, so it was a pleasant surprise to find time had been thrust back into the ’50s. The novel’s modernity is given away by its word choices and sensibilities—the raw smut focus and harsh language, for one, are several degrees rougher than what was allowable in the past—but Philips captured the hardboiled noir better than most contemporary writers. He knows noir, of which Fade to Blonde is proof, and he knows how to write, and comes loaded for bear with his poetic, literary skills. It’s an authentic 1950s noir, written in the 21st Century.

I’m enthralled by Max Phillips’ Chandlereqsue first-person prose. It’s laden with fantastic little phrases like “After that, all I had to do was kill time. It didn’t die without a struggle.” Or try “Her hair was done Kim Novak-style and blonde enough to hurt. You could have sterilized a cut by running your fingers through that hair.” I also noticed several subtle homages. One of the bars that crops up several times is called the Gold Medal. And the antagonist’s last name, Halliday, was the house-name pseudonym used for the long-running Mike Shayne series. Coincidence? Or did I just miss the more oblique references?

Iambik Audiobooks – 2011 – a fraction of the line can be bought as audiobooks; Iambik did two of them.

What strikes me most is Phillips’ ability to channel noir—aside from a few modern affectations, reading the novel feels like you’ve stepped back into the mid-1950s, the glitz and grit of Hollywood’s underworld. Combined with strong prose, that gives the novel an internal strength that allows it to punch outside of its class. Once again, proof that Hard Case Crime makes some fantastic choices, and a solid example of how new writers can surpass the old masters. The plot is perfect in its shadowy grandeur, and while I have a few quibbles with its execution, the novel is within arm’s reach of perfection. A worthy recipient of the Shamus Award; the novel’s rave reviews are spot on.