Friday, August 14, 2009

Honey in His Mouth by Lester Dent (Hard Case Crime)

Reading Honey in His Mouth was an exercise in giving an author a second chance. I first read the work of Lester Dent in June when I happened upon a Doc Savage novel by "Kenneth Robeson" (Quest for Qui) in a used-book store. I didn't like it. Mostly, I didn't like the characters. After all, why does a superman of sorts need five assistants, especially when he spends most of the book saving them from their own stupidity?

That said, the story showed some real creative thought on display, so I opened Honey in His Mouth with both trepidation and anticipation. This novel was written in 1956, one of Dent's last, and it remained unpublished until Hard Case Crime got hold of it and added it to their roster of lost novels that include Roger Zelazny's The Dead Man's Brother and David Dodge's masterful The Last Match, a modern classic of grifter lit.

The main draw of Honey in His Mouth for me was its con-man protagonist. If you want me to read a book, tell me there's a confidence scheme involved, and the more elaborate the better. (Another recent read, King Con by Stephen J. Cannell, was very enjoyable in an Ocean's Eleven kind of way — meaning all the pieces are there, but it was a little too eager to be mainstream to be anything more than a fun ride.)

Dent starts out with a truly exciting car chase. Walter Harsh is a photographer who is not averse to scamming folks for equipment. Such was the case with D.C. Roebuck, who let Harsh have $712 worth of supplies to be billed later. Harsh never paid the bill and subsequently met Roebuck at a filling station. Harsh speeds out; Roebuck gives chase, and off we go. Before the end, an arm is broken, and a car is off the road.

Harsh's time in the hospital gives him an opportunity. He has O-negative blood, you see, a very rare type. This just happens to be the same blood type as the president of a South American country, whom Harsh also just happens to exactly resemble. There is a quartet of schemers who have been looking for someone just like him to impersonate the dictator, and they're willing to pay him $50,000.

Dent sends us on a ride that will not only please his fans but also those of other Hard Case Crime novels. The vetting process of Harsh is a highlight, with the five main characters taking turns in the spotlight. Each one — Brother, Doctor Englaster, Mr. Hassam, Miss Muirz (the dish depicted in the cover painting by Ron Lesser), and Harsh himself — is a full-bodied individual easily distinguished by his or her own conceits and deceits.

Just as I was getting comfortable with them and settling in for a smooth read, Dent throws a monkey wrench that practically sends their plans all to hell. I was worried that Honey in His Mouth would soon focus on the scheme to the book's detriment, but this conflict only serves to bring out the characters' differences and personalities all the more.

Dent is a highly skilled plotter, and Honey in His Mouth in a prime example. It is definitely one of the best of the year, and it just may be one of the best that Hard Case Crime has published yet. It rushes headlong toward a roller coaster conclusion — with plenty of sharp turns to keep things interesting, including two I never saw coming (though my wife thought one was obvious, so your mileage may vary).

Between Honey in His Mouth and The Last Match, my favorite books of the Hard Case Crime like have been ones found by their authors' estate. I for one would be very grateful if all late crime authors' relations would thoroughly scour their famous kin's files for more gems like these. Sometimes trunks house treasures.

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