Friday, May 16, 2008

Shooting Star / Spiderweb by Robert Bloch (Hard Case Crime double)

It's at first a little surprising that Hard Case Crime would reprint a Robert Bloch novel, let alone two, since he is best known for writing the novel that inspired Alfred Hitchcock's classic film Psycho. Though Bloch then became known as a horror writer, that book was just one of 20 he wrote throughout his career, covering other genres like science-fiction and, the appropriate one here, crime.

Shooting Star appears in this volume along with Spiderweb, packaged together in a form reminiscent of the old Ace Doubles — two complete novels printed back-to-back and head-to-tail with a separate cover for each one. You read one novel, then flip the book over to read the other. Each one has its own copyright page and cover art. It's a gimmick, to be sure, but a great one.

This presentation is perfect when you consider that Shooting Star and Spiderweb actually both first appeared as part of the Ace Double line (each runs just over 150 pages). Not together, though: they were published in 1958 and 1954, respectively. (Spiderweb was backed by a David Alexander novel, and Shooting Star was backed with a collection of Bloch's short stories.)

When an old friend asks him to solve an old murder, a one-eyed, down-on-his-luck literary agent becomes a one-eyed, down-on-his-luck private eye. After Mark Clayburn had the accident that lost him an eye (and gained him a patch), no one came to visit him — not even Harry Bannock, though they were pretty close at the time.

Now Bannock wants a favor: for Clayburn to solve the murder of Dick Ryan (Clayburn has a PI license and gun permit to help with research on true-detective yarns) so Bannock can cash in on a TV deal for Ryan's series of 39 Lucky Larry movies. (Ryan was found with "reefer butts" at the time, and the TV people are wary of closing the deal due to the scandal.) Clayburn only agrees because he could use the money. But the threats begin right away, and the police are less than helpful.

I often enjoy novels set in old Hollywood. In fact, just before beginning Shooting Star, I had just read two others — What Makes Sammy Run? and Rude Mechanicals — and I thought my brain was primed for the experience. But, as one might expect, Bloch shows a different side of Hollywood. No bright lights here, expect for the occasional muzzle flash. Clayburn can't trust anyone, not even the people he has to depend on most.

What I didn't expect was conventionality. Though few of them are genuine classics, all the other Bloch novels I've read were nonetheless intriguing in their pursuit of original ideas. But, apart from a couple of interesting details — namely, the one-eyed protagonist and the antidrug message (with repeated talk of "reefer addicts") — Shooting Star is like a lot of other private eye novels. Plus, the solution is so predictable that it's practically given away before the book begins.

Even Spiderweb offers a very typical noir-fiction plot: greed gets a guy in over his head with some shady dealings, and he has to find a way out. Eddie Haines had a promising career in Iowa. The star of the senior play, they all said, "You oughta be in pictures." When he got a crackerjack idea for a TV series, he headed for Hollywood. Two months and $300 to an agent later, after not a single bite, Eddie is standing in front of his bathroom mirror with a straight razor in his hand and shaving the farthest thing from his mind when a Peter Lorre lookalike knocks on his door with $100 and the opportunity to become someone else.

The only different between this and any other typical crime novel is Bloch's use of psychology as a theme. Fortunately, that difference goes a long way toward making Spiderweb the more entertaining of the two. My guess is that it was the novel actually selected to be reprinted but that it was too short by itself and Shooting Star was picked to fill out the page count. Either way, I still hope Hard Case Crime produces more dual volumes like this one and the one they published early on, collecting Max Allan Collins's first two novels — I have to admit I like getting "two for the money."

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