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Onyx reviews: Hard Freeze by Dan Simmons

Hard Freeze is Dan Simmons' second foray into the realm of the ultra-hardboiled crime novel. His protagonist, Joe Kurtz, used to be a private investigator, but that was before he served eleven years in Attica for throwing the man he suspected of killing his partner out a hotel window.

Kurtz's tableau is the frozen streets of wintry Buffalo, and Simmons makes this northern city as cold and unforgiving as Kurtz himself. Though he's mostly been minding his own business lately, someone wants him dead: "Little Skag" Farino, the last don of the local crime family that was at the center of Kurtz's last adventure, Hardcase. Farino, who operates the family business from behind prison walls, thinks Kurtz knows just a little too much about his operations. Farino's beautiful sister, Angelina, is back from exile in Sicily has her own plans for Kurtz.

Three of Kurtz's former prison mates are stalking him—he calls them the Attica Three Stooges—and Kurtz's method of handling the situation will win him no prizes from the police benevolent association. One bad guy dies in a shootout and another is offered the choice between a "humanitarian" shot to the head or taking his chances by leaping from a car speeding down the freeway.

Kurtz learns that he may have killed the wrong perpetrators all those years ago and that the person responsible for his former partner's death is still alive. Busy dodging bullets, he is reluctant to accept a plea for assistance by John Wellington Frears, a world-famous violinist dying of colon cancer. Frears believes he saw the man who raped and murdered his daughter twenty years ago—a man who supposedly committed suicide—at the airport. Kurtz's investigation uncovers a master impersonator, a serial killer who has murdered repeatedly over the years while impersonating a wide variety of professionals ranging from an airline pilot to a police captain. Assisted by a rogue dentist, the killer has covered his numerous crimes with fake dental records implicating other people who turn up conveniently dead.

As if all this wasn't enough, Kurtz is also trying to evade police officers dead set on catching him violating parole (even if they have to fabricate the evidence) while protecting his young daughter—who doesn't know him—from an abusive stepfather. On top of everything else, Kurtz's secretary is pushing him to find some new office space and to come up with $35,000.00 to start a new Internet business. None of his endeavors show much potential for financial gain.

Hard Freeze is crime fiction cut to the bone. Kurtz is a hard case with a wise mouth and enough skill and few enough scruples to back it up. Simmons always makes Kurtz's motivations clear and readers can't help but cheer him on in spite of his darker-than-black nature. He has a soft side, buried deep beneath layer upon layer of plate armor. The American Library Association calls Kurtz "one of the least likable protagonists you'll ever find yourself rooting for."

Simmons is relentless. He creates no comfortable pauses for readers to catch their breath. The body count grows as Kurtz manages his various crises while simultaneously plotting the downfall of a man who has eluded suspicion for decades. The worst blizzard in Buffalo's history enhances the book's chilling plot, serving both as a starkly white contrast for spatters of blood and a frigid blanket, a pall, over the scenes of the crimes. It's a quick read, but one that will leave readers breathless and shivering.

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