There’s a tell early in this novel about what exactly we’re dealing with here. It’s neo noir book written by Dan Simmons, who is mostly known for science fiction and horror, but who has dabbled in some other genres. The tell is that a character mentions loving the Richard Stark “Parker” books, but hates the prissy Donald Westlake books. Donald Westlake and Richard Stark are the same person (Donald Westlake), and the Westlake books tend to be light-hearted and funny, while the Stark books are much “tougher” and certainly more violent and more grim.
So Joe Kurtz (yeah, like Heart of Darkness) gets out of prison in upstate New York and wants to pick up his private detective business again. He does, but he also pays a call to a local organized crime syndicate. In prison he acted as a bodyguard for one of the sons of the head of the family and is looking for some kind of work with them. He gets it, but not without a lot of grief and not without eventually becoming the target of a setup they’re trying to run. But Joe Kurtz is the hero and the novel and he’s based on Parker, so of course we know he’s not going to get into too much trouble. Unlike Parker, this book has a sense of humor, which is good, especially given that not all of Dan Simmons’s books do, and well, it’s already chock full of plenty of literary references anyway, and so he tosses a few more in there. It’s a generally compelling novel that takes on a very small clime (a shrinking Buffalo) and makes free use of that much more cramped space. It reminds me a lot of the Jim Jarmusch take on the mob in the movie Ghost Dog.
Hard Freeze –
It gets pretty silly in this one for a few reasons. For one, Dan Simmons seems perfectly content and even driven to include serial killers in the mix of these books. Why that is is a question I am not clear about. We begin with Joe Kurtz being approached by an older concert violinist who tells him that he wants Joe to find his daughter’s killer, a former friend who had been posing as a psychiatrist and neighbor. The man lured the daughter to the woods where he brutalized her and killed her, then called her father to say what he had done and that he was returning home to kill his own wife and child. The man calls the police, but when they arrive the house is burnt to the ground with three bodies inside. The violinist didn’t believe he was dead, and recently thinks he saw the man in the airport, his face radically changed.
Joe also has to contend with his own situation, fending off continued hits on his life from the local mob he harrassed in book one. A new daughter of the old don has returned from Italy and she seems to be behind the new hits. It turns out she kind of is, but it’s really her brother and Joe has gotten involved in a mafia power struggle. He also maybe sorta is thinking about hooking up with her like he did her sister, but this one seems crazier and more violent.
And wouldn’t you know it, the two storylines merge together eventually in some truly silly ways.
Hard as Nails –
In this third book, Joe Kurtz meets with his parole officer who asks him to maybe look into the location of an abandoned amusement park and supplies him some pictures. She doesn’t explain why but he agrees. When he’s going to get his car, he accidentally runs into her in the garage (something they both would want to avoid) and they are attacked by an unknown assailant. Joe is hurt, but the officer is seriously hurt, shot in the head, and ends up in a coma. Joe is suspected in the attack, but when he gets out, he’s able to further investigate the crimes. The questions she was asking about the park end up being tied up in the mysteries, go figure.
This is the most brutal of the books not just with violence, but with an almost body horror level series of injuries that are described. It’s not torture-torture, but torturous and far-fetched, but, yes, brutal. The mystery is generally fine, but a little silly. The scope in these book have grown to the point of unwelcome it feels.
The title of this story collection comes from the German word “Liebestod” which is a thematic element in opera and other European writing, but less so in American writing or even English writing. It’s about the confluence of love and death and sex and erotics. That’s how it plays out in these stories which generally circle around those ideas. Horror is the generally the closest we get to these ideas especially things like Dracula, Clive Barker and Hellraiser, and then in non-horror but adjacent work with Lars von Trier and David Cronenberg (and JG Ballard of course).
Here we have five stories, all long, and one of them that falls squarely into horror and erotics, in which a Vietnam vet living in Thailand goes searching for what he thinks might be a legendary prostitute (this is some William Vollmann territory) and finds a horrific underground sex cult. Another story dives into Native American myths about bodies and sex. Another is about a man who feels distance from his wife and imagines her death and life simultaneously. Another deals with a future technology in which one can revisit one’s memories (horrific enough as far as I am concerned), and then a long novella at the end that lives in the diaries of a WWI poet (and the editorial notes of an academic) describing a ghost-like muse he meets on the battlefield.
The collection is not very good. The best story is also arguably the worst, the one about the sex cult because it’s the most action-packed and gruesome. And while Dan Simmons is a pretty decent prose writer and solid thinker, without the genre elements in his work, his limits become very apparent.