Wednesday, September 07, 2011

51. Hell to Pay by William R. Cox

We went up to the Laurentians for an overnight stay at a lakeside hotel with some friends during the Labour Day weekend and during a lunch stop at tourist town St-Agathe, wouldn't you know it, there was an outdoor book sale!  Most of the tables were french or local authors or recent best seller paperbacks in english, except one where the guy had an amazing collection of paperback pulps from the 50s for reasonable prices!  Unfortunately, I felt some social pressure and we hadn't eaten lunch, so I ended up only getting three and regretting not scooping up the others when I had the chance.  Turned out the seller had once own a bookstore and this was left over from his remaining inventory.  He had inherited most of the inventory and didn't know much about old crime paperbacks. The previous owner had, but also had some ridiculously marked-up prices (this one for instance, had $26 pencilled in the inside front cover).  I was actually reading another book, but Hell to Pay starts off so well that I couldn't put it down.

It's the story of  a succesful Manhattan gambler, Tom Kincaid, who is connected to the Syndicate and underworld but manages to maintain his autonomy (to everyone's displeasure).  He keeps the balance until a brief altercation at a dice game with a young punk suddenly puts him in the middle of what appears to be a generational gang war between the Syndicate and these crazy, hopped-up greasers who seem to like violence for its own sake.  The plot is much more complicated than that, with lots of twists and turns.  Right up until the end, there is a mystery as well, which is why the protagonist is so much in the middle of everything.  The reveal was pretty cool and definitely surprising, but that part of the story was not super convincing and it came out a bit soft in the end.

What was convincing and really well done, was the milieu.  This is Richard Stark's syndicate, with big, older men with last names only from out of town meeting in fancy residential hotel rooms.  All the locales—the restaurants on Broadway, the garages, the underground dice games and high-roller card games—were richly portrayed and interesting as hell.  The violence, also was compelling and intense ("Like in the Islands during the war, I kept moving, firing").  The cover over-hypes the young punks theme, but it is the central theme and they are truly hateful.  Hell to Pay echoes the conservatism of the genre, but from a strange perspective, because basically everybody is a criminal.  It's just that the older criminals have a code and are doing it for the money and the control, while the young ones are just irrational, cruel and destructive.

For some reason, the language of the action scenes reminded me of The Big Blowdown, when they corner the extortionists in the garage.  Wonder if Pelecanos has read this one?  Anyhow, despite a bit of an easy ending that didn't really fit in with the grit, tension and brutal violence that went on before, this was a solid, satisfying crime novel.

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