Thursday, October 28, 2010

A Cab Ride to Murder

Nobody's Angel
Jack Clark
Hardcase Crime
paperback, June 2010, 220 pg

At first glance a crime novel about a cab driver, while possibly adventurous, may not sound all that fantastic.  But keep in mind, one person's mundane is another person's fantastic. 

When cab drivers are presented in fiction, whether in film or in literature, they often serve merely as chauffeurs or as comic foils.  When they're the central characters, too many times they're romanticized.  (I have never seen the show Taxi, so the applicability of any comments I make in this post to that show is purely coincidental.)  At least that's been my observation, although I've not done any scientific study.  The only cab driver stories I know of in which the cabbie was played straight, and not for laughs, was in the Steve Midnight tales by John K. Butler.  These ran mostly in Dime DetectiveAdventure House has reprinted them in At the Stroke of Midnight, which I read a few years back and quite enjoyed.  Other than this volume, Butler is pretty much out of print except for a story in the odd anthology, a mistake that someone will hopefully correct.  And soon.

Anyway, Nobody's Angel tells the story of Eddie Miles, a Chicago cabbie who happens to become involved in two different series of killings while working the night shift.  In one, someone is mutilating and murdering prostitutes.  Eddie stumbles on one of the killings, causing the killer to drive away before completing his task, and the result is the intended victim ends up being the only survivor.  In the other, someone is knocking off cab drivers.  Eddie is a friend of the latest victim as well as the last person to see him alive.  You can imagine how this makes the police take an interest in him, although they don't take the expected approach and hassle Eddie or even suspect him.  Instead they ask him to keep his eyes and ears open.

Clark does an excellent job of showing us the world of the night shift through Eddie's eyes.  It's a world most of us probably wouldn't want to see on a daily basis.  While there is certainly room for humor and camaraderie, especially among the cabbies, it's a world that is often sordid and profane.  And at times out right deadly.

Clark opens each chapter with one of the ordinances governing cab drivers in the city of Chicago.  This technique gives insight into the lives of the cabbies.  All good fantasy and science fiction, at least at novel length, will take the reader and transport him or her into the life of someone in another world, hopefully one that is different enough to be exotic while at the same time having enough touchstones of the familiar to allow the reader to relate.  Clark proves that sometimes some of the most exotic settings can literally be right around the corner.  While reading the book, he made the world of the Chicago cab driver real to me, even though I'd never been to that city or was even very familiar with its geography.  This is something the urban detective tale does when the author is working at the top of the form:  give the detective's city an identity so that the city transcends place and setting and becomes a character in its own right.  It's a hard trick to pull off, but Clark does it.  When I learned on his website that Jack Clark drives a cab himself, I wasn't surprised.  If I were a betting man, I would bet that some of the fares Eddie picks up are based on those of Jack himself.  One or two are so out there, they had to be true.

There is action and violence in the book, but that's not what the plot revolves around.  Instead it's the threat of violence, coming when unexpected, and the sense of danger permeating the city.  Lennie, Eddie's friend who is murdered, is an old and experienced cabbie, with plenty of street smarts.  The fact that someone is able to get past his guard rattles the drivers.  The second killer carving up streetwalkers only adds to the tension, as do Eddie's attempts to locate the killer's van again.  We learn how Eddie thinks, the mistakes he's made, the regrets he has.  Yet deep inside, he's a hero.  He does the right thing, more than once, when there's a very real possibility the right thing could get him hurt, robbed, killed, or any combination of the above.  More than that, he's ready when he has to fight.  While his weapon of choice may not be a sword or a blaster, he wields it with skill, and he's not afraid to risk his life in a tight situation.

Nobody's Angel is more than just a study in character and place.  There is a mystery in the book.  The clues are there.  I'm annoyed I missed them, because when I got to the end, it was obvious what I'd overlooked.  And the more I think about it, the more obvious it is.

Overall, this was one of the better noir crime novels I've read in a while, and I tend to read a lot of them in between the fantasy, science fiction, and historical adventure.  While I may have been put off by some of the things Eddie encountered, I'd ride along with him again any time.

Finally, I want to say a word about Hard Case Crime.  For something like six years or so now, publisher Charles Ardai has been bringing out some of the best old and new noir-style crime novels by established Grandmasters (can you say Lawrence Block and Donald E. Westlake?), forgotten pros whose names should be better known, such as Cornell Woolrich (it pains me to put him in this category) and Charles Williams, to nwer writers who are worth keeping an eye on (think Dominic Stansberry for one).  And the cover art is something to behold.  You can see all of them here.

Their printer and distributor has been Dorchester Books, which earlier this year announced they were switching to ebooks.  What that means is that volume 66, Brett Halliday's Mike Shayne novel Murder is My Business is the last Hard Case book you'll see in mass market paperback for a while, maybe ever.  Volume 67 is scheduled to be released in hardcover through Subterranean Books, and there are plans to continue the line, although details are sketchy.  Also the Gabriel Hunt mens' adventure series (an offshoot of Hard Case), the Cosmos collections of the weird fiction of Robert E. Howard, and the Leisure line of horror are now gone.  As in off the shelves.  At least in the chain box stores like Barnes and Noble.  And they've probably been pulped, which means copies will become more and more collectible as the years pass.

I had to order the Hard Case and Gabriel Hunt volumes I was missing from two different independent booksellers who specialize in mysteries.  I have all the Hard Case and the first five of the Gabriel Hunt.  I don't know if the sixth Hunt will be published on schedule this month or not.  I tend to doubt it.  Hopefully it will see print someday soon.  I'll take a look at the Hunt books here in the future as I can fit them in.  But I do want to thank Charles Ardai and his team for bringing me so many hours of reading pleasure throughout the last few years.

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