Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Peddler by Richard S. Prather (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.

"Don't give me this crap about I don't deserve nothin' because I only been working a year or so.... You might as well try to tell me the guy that's been in the Army longest oughta be Chief of Staff, or the guy's been in politics longest oughta be President, or the guy's been goin' to church longest oughta be Pope. Jesus Christ, I seen guys could make doughnuts all their life and never learn where the holes go." — from The Peddler

How does a man who was one of the country's best-selling authors — who sold over 40 million copies of his books — become an unfamiliar name to an entire generation of readers? I guess one way is to go 20 years without publishing a new book. At least that's what Richard S. Prather did. But now it's time to bring his name back into the limelight with the rerelease of his 1952 novel The Peddler, which also reunites him with artist Robert McGinnis, the cover illustrator of many of Prather's books.

Most of Prather's novels comprised a series starring his ex-Marine character Shell Scott, but The Peddler (originally published under the name Douglas Ring) is the story of Tony Romero. Romero is a twenty-year-old ambitious up-and-comer who finagles his way into the company of the local crime organization and steadily connives his way up its ranks. Of course, this being a Hard Case Crime novel, things eventually get very difficult for Tony, but that comes later.

I had some difficulty myself getting into The Peddler, as the early dialogue sounded unrealistic to my mind's ear, but things got very interesting by the end of Chapter Two, and it was easy going from that point on all the way through to the most shocking conclusion I've come across since Lawrence Block's Grifter's Game — coincidentally, another Hard Case Crime release. (The dialogue is especially forgivable when you realize Prather was churning out multiple novels per year and probably didn't have much time for things like revision.)

An artless style almost conceals Prather's true talent for delving into the darker portions of human nature and using that to keep the plot moving. When a man filled with ambition (as Tony Romero is) gets in over his head and gets himself put into a situation where he can no longer pursue those ambitions, he gets bored and angry and stops thinking straight — and that can only lead to trouble. And that's where Prather and The Peddler really shine. I have to respect any writer who can make a nearly silent poker game into one of a novel's most gut-wrenching scenes.

The upshot of this is that The Peddler is yet another winner from Hard Case Crime, and Richard S. Prather is yet another author for me to pursue in used book stores to the detriment of my wallet. If this keeps up, I'm going to have to open a book store of my own as a front for all the books I'll be buying.

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