Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Fade to Blonde by Max Phillips (Hard Case Crime)

Since September 2009 marks the fifth anniversary of Hard Case Crime, I will be reprinting my reviews of the first 40 books from my old (and now mostly defunct) Craig's Book Club site — 2 for the first 10 days, and 1 a day for the next 20. I hope you enjoy this refresher course in the variety of crime fiction that this fascinating publisher has to offer.

Ray Corson is a wannabe-screenwriter, ex-boxer, and odd job man. Now he's about to get involved in his oddest job yet: protecting ex-porn actress Rebecca LaFontaine from Lance Halliday, pretty-boy mobster, stag film producer, and lye enthusiast.

Max Phillips is the co-founder of the Hard Case Crime imprint, but any publishing house with an eye for the future would have taken on Fade to Blonde. When an author like Phillips — who usually writes meaningful mainstream fiction like The Artist's Wife and Snakebite Sonnet — tries his hand at hard-boiled genre fiction, the end result is either going to be a joke or a classic. My wager is on the latter.

Rebecca LaFontaine turns out to be one of the more interesting femmes fatales I've met lately, if only because she's so full of surprises. Just when you think you've got a bead on her, Corson discovers something else about her — or she confesses it, and this girl just aches to confess things, especially if they're only tangentially related to the truth and will assist in her use of her physical attributes to get her way — that changes key perceptions about her character. (For another take on this type of sexually manipulative woman in a different setting, and from her own viewpoint, see the abovementioned The Artist's Wife.)

You can tell Phillips is a literary novelist because that little piece of story I described at the beginning is just that: the beginning. In the course of Corson's travels, he comes across more people and gets himself involved in more difficult situations than should be able to fit in these 220-odd pages. What keeps Fade to Blonde from being 500 pages is Phillips' economy with words (I'll skip the Hemingway reference, though, if you don't mind). This keeps the story moving because there are often two or more things going on at once; even when Ray is just sitting on a stool in a restaurant — or holding one of Rebecca's marketable breasts in his hand — dialogue (and often money) is being exchanged that moves the plot forward.

Everything eventually comes together, though in a typical "mystery" ending, where Corson discovers the mysterious thread that ties all the information together. In the end, when he goes back to his previous way of life, it's a little disappointing, but you know that he isn't likely to keep minding his own business for long. Fade to Blonde may be a little high-toned for the average pulp aficionado, but those who appreciate it will enjoy Phillips' depth of characterization and especially his ability to stick to the rules of the genre while giving it his own stamp of intellect.

No comments:

Related Posts with Thumbnails