Wednesday, November 30, 2011

True, hardboiled fiction is also escapist. It offers a low-risk walk on the wild side

One of the reasons I love book blogging so much is because I am introduced to books I would have never considered. Hell, I'm introduced to genres I normally wouldn't check out. In this case the book is Beat to a Pulp: Hardboiled, which is a collection of hardboiled short stories. The book was brought to my attention by Ben at Dead End Follies who wrote one of the stories in the collection.

Short story collections are always a challenge to review. Do you talk about every story? Just a few? The collection overall? I can never decide which way to go so I've decided I'm just going to babble instead of going into this with any sort of structure. You know, my usual method.

First up, this was a quick read. And not a quick as in "this was an easy read that required no thought". It was quick because I kept wanting to see what happened next. And then that story would end and I'd go "Well I just have time for one more..." I have a very short attention span so normally with short stories I read one then put the book down and wander away. Not this time though. Even the stories that weren't my favorite still made me want to read more. That was pretty sweet.

Short stories can be tricky. They need to tell a complete story, a complete arc, in the span of just a few pages. They can be a moment of part of a larger story (aren't all stories?) but it needs to be fully contained. Most of the stories in this collection succeeded but there were a couple that felt like they were chapters out of a larger novel. They told of a single event, but they didn't feel like a single story. Kent Gowran's "A Small Thing at the Devil's Punchbowl" and John Hornor Jacobs "The Death Fantastique" both had this problem. I liked both stories, I thought they were interesting and well-written, but they felt like I picked up a full novel and read a couple pages out of it. They didn't work as short stories.

On the other hand, some of the stories were especially good, both in terms of working as a short story as well as just being a good read. My two favorites are "Ric with No K" by Patricia Abbot and Ben's "Second Round Dive".

Before I say anything else, I want to say that when I first started Ben's story I told myself I wasn't going to review it. It can be nerve wracking to write any review, moreso when you know the author might read it and then that's tripled when the author is a blogging friend. So I was just going to avoid that whole deal by not writing about it. And then I ended up really liking the story. A story about a boxer. I don't like boxers or boxing or fighting, unless it involves Christian Bale acting like a crack head. But the fact is when the story is about the characters and is good, it doesn't matter what the details are. Plus this happens to be the only story that I stopped to highlight different parts*. So in the end, I couldn't help me say something about this story and I'm very happy that it is all good things.

I was also pleasantly surprised that my other favorite story of the collection is written by a female author. I didn't notice that until after I finished but it's nice to see ladies getting in on this genre. (They might be all over the genre, I really have no idea.) In this case there is little in terms of a plot, which was a change from so many of the other stories that were very plot driven. There is a plot there, but it mostly focuses on the main character, a naive young girl who sporadically sees her flaky mom in between foster homes and her criminal older "boyfriend" Ric. The story could have easily gone the route of a Law & Order: SVU episode but by focusing on the girl, it doesn't. It takes on an innocence that makes it endearing as well as disturbing.

As I've said, I'm not a hardboiled expert by any means, so I can't tell you if this collection is really indicative of the genre as a whole or what. I can't put it into a real context but I can tell you I really enjoyed this. It's a collection that kept me entertained and kept me going "just one more story."

*This isn't entirely true, as I did highlight a line in another story. But that highlight was because I went "what? That doesn't make sense at all." In "The Death Fantastique" a character wonders why the girl takes a shower but doesn't wash her hair and wonders what the point is. Then makes a comment about localized dirt between her legs. Really, my problem with this is I definitely don't wash my hair each time I shower because do you know how long it takes to wash and dry long hair? For me at least, while I have long hair, it's like an extra hour of work. It's a real pain in the ass. I know it's a stupid, little thing, but it took me out of the story.

Title quote from location 53

Crammer, David and Scott D. Parker (eds). Beat to a Pulp: Hardboiled. Amazon Digital Services, 2011. Kindle.