The Ultra-Hardboiled

by Don Herron

Back in the day, before this website took over the job, I got out my fair share of advertising flyers and catalogs, lots of neat little items of tour ephemera for interested collectors to track down someday, that additional hurdle to jump for the folk who think they have acquired everything, only to find they have another hunt ahead — real collectors love this kind of thing, so there is no sadism involved. Trust me.

Following loosely on the model of August Derleth with his many brochures advertising Arkham House (I personally collect those — check out my article on the hobby in Firsts: The Book Collector’s Magazine for October 2002), I jazzed the catalogs up with bits of news and opinions. One had a very cool cover photo shot by Arthur Tress. You can look at a few selected examples of many scattered at the bottom of this page.

But first, in the brochure for 1992 I did a riff on hardboiled writers that still applies and which you may enjoy. When I’m talking hardboiled, people, I mean hardboiled:

Okay, so you’ve read Hammett and you’ve read Raymond Chandler, and you still want more great hardboiled writing. I’m not going to give a personal recommendation to a lot more, but then I’m tough. I think the novels The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity by James M. Cain and Thieves Like Us by Edward Anderson are great. You won’t go wrong reading the crime novels of the black ex-patriat writer Chester Himes — Cotton Comes to Harlem, The Real Cool Killers, etc, but then Himes is too hardboiled for most people, which is one of the reasons his name is not automatically placed third after Hammett and Chandler (instead, critics wimped out and went with Ross MacDonald — I disagree completely). Also, I recommend Charles Willeford (highly) and the early crime novels of Elmore Leonard (especially City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit). I guess there is a lot of confusion over definitions — I remember one time (This Really Happened) when I was plugging Willeford and Elmore, and then a woman on the walk recommended to me Marcia Muller’s Edwin of the Iron Shoes. Please. I’m talking the ultra-hardboiled here. I understand that many people don’t want the ultra — when I blurb Charles Willeford, I tell people: Read Miami Blues. If you like Miami Blues, you’ll like everything he wrote. If not, forget it, try to find something else you’ll enjoy.

And then, after you’ve read so far, the big problem becomes finding more. Maybe even something new. When Willeford died after eating an extra-large pepperoni pizza, I figured that was it for awhile — no one else I could recommend would surface for a few years. I’m glad to say I was wrong. Tom Kakonis appeared that same year with Michigan Roll (1988), and has followed up with Criss Cross (1990) and Double Down (1991). Kakonis is very much like Elmore Leonard (the early, lean, mean Elmore Leonard) in the same way that Chandler is like Hammett. Derivative, yeah, but he has more going on. I’ll tell you how good Kakonis is: two of these novels are about a pro card player. I hate playing cards. And Kakonis is my favorite new crime writer. I think that Hammett fans especially will enjoy Criss Cross, which strikes me as Kakonis doing for our times a stripped-down and dirty version of The Maltese Falcon, with a fat man named Kasperson as in Casper (Gutman’s) son — a femme fatale flightier than Brigid O, and a beaten-down hero who makes Mrs. Spade’s boy seem definitely upbeat. Instead of a fabulous jeweled bird from the Crusades, they’re after an armored payroll truck. So, write this down: Tom Kakonis, the best hardboiled writer working today. And I said so.