Hardcase – Dan Simmons ****+

There are three novels in this ultra-hardboiled {thriller/detective/ough guy} series. (The genre is in flux, and at present there isn’t really a term for it that I like.) The hero is Joe Kurtz, and he’s is the hardest fictional case I’ve run into who still comes across as three dimensional and interesting in a variety of ways. The third in the series (Hard as Nails) is just out. I haven’t read it yet, but I will soon.

Genres are genres specifically because there are conventions associated with them. Romance novels (whether or not they are marketed that way) are love stories with a hopeful ending — how shocking. Hope? Happiness? How very naive, how feminine. Tsk tsk. Traditional mysteries will, in the end, let you know who did it: there’s supposed to be an Answer. In hardboiled fiction, the main character(s), no matter how tough, have to have limits to what they will do. Lucas Davenport in Sandford’s Prey series goes right up to that line, so do Patrick and Angie in Dennis Lehane’s series. But Patrick and Lucas are engaging where as Joe Kurtz is mostly just scary.

Most of these hardboiled series follow the pattern set up by Robert Parker in his Spenser novels: There’s Spenser, the detective who stays just side of the line, and his good friend, Hawk, much more dangerous and unpredictable, who is happy on the other side of that same line and does the stuff that Spenser won’t. In Robert Crais’s novels, there’s Evis Cole and Joe Pike, in Dennis Lehane there’s Patrick and Angie on the bright side of things and Bubba Rugowski on the dark. Joe Kurtz is Bubba and Patrick rolled into one, and Bubba is winning the wrestling match.

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