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Onyx reviews: Hardcase by Dan Simmons

Dan Simmons is the chameleon of modern fiction. Whatever genre he attacks, he takes on its local coloring as if it were a second skin. Lately, his books have strayed more into the crime/mystery/suspense realm, though he is reportedly working on science fiction retellings of The Iliad and The Odyssey. Past works have been inspired by the poetry of Keats and T.S. Eliot.

His genre-shifting doesn't always please his publishers, who would rather pigeon-hole an author so they can market a new book based on a previous success in the same genre. Simmons is not sufficiently well known that he can do whatever he wants in the industry. His books have a strong following, but he must still satisfy the whims of publishers. When he turned in Hardcase to Harper Collins, they 'handled it with fire tongs before sending it back.' This is why Hardcase is a St. Martin's Press release and why he originally planned to release it under a pseudonym.

Hardcase is billed as a 'Joe Kurtz' mystery, making it sound like the first in a series, which, reportedly, it is. Simmons's previous novel, Darwin's Blade, was a suspense novel with a hard edge. Hardcase is hardboiled crime fiction distilled down to its barest elements—sharp dialog, compact action, plenty of violence. Simmons calls it the latest in his shift toward deep noir.

The book opens with P.I. Joe Kurtz throwing Eddie Falco out a sixth floor window, his body landing on a police cruiser. The cops were responding to calls about the prolonged altercation, which included Kurtz shoving Falco's hand in the garbage disposal. Falco had been responsible for the rape and murder of Kurtz's partner.

Chapter two leaps forward eleven years to the day Kurtz is released from prison. Even behind bars, Kurtz's life was complicated—he was involved in a killing and became the protector of a member of a crime syndicate, Steve Farino.

Kurtz needs work and wrangles his prison favor into an audience with Farino's father that leads to a well-paying job: investigating the disappearance of the mob's accountant. The Farino mob is not entirely stable—there are power plays going on among family members, including a struggle between Don Byron and his attractive but ruthless daughter. Someone is also hijacking trucks involved in their drug trade.

Getting involved with the mob may not be the best career move for Kurtz. It has him at odds with the cops, other mobsters and members of the family itself. At the same time, Kurtz has to keep looking over his shoulder for the dwarfish brother of the man he executed who is intent on revenge.

Hardcase sings like a Robert B. Parker detective novel or a Donald Westlake caper. There is a bevy of colorful characters, including a homeless man who speaks Latin, a knife-wielding albino hitman known only as "The Dane," and Kurtz's loyal and capable assistant, Arlene Demarco, who tends to the new office Kurtz establishes in the basement of a porno shop. Kurtz is a hardcase, but the title refers to something else altogether that will play a pivotal role in the climax.

At 275 pages, the book is lean and taught. Every word counts. Wear your oven mitts when handling this one! Simmons is more than a chameleon—he does not merely wear the trappings of genres, he explores the nucleus of what makes a genre work and pokes at its boundaries to see where he can expand it to a new level. This isn't Chandler or Hammett, but it possibly reflects how they might have written if they had been writing in the twenty-first century.

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