Hard Case Crime is back. And that is wonderful news for fans of noir fiction. After a year’s absence in which they found a new publishing partner to handle their distribution, the publisher returns with a vengeance with its first hardcover book. And they made it worth the wait.
"GETTING OFF is a heck of a wild ride and loads of fun. Once you pick it up, you are not putting it down. Just remember to pay for it first in the bookstore."
Fans of Hard Case have come to expect quality entertainment, both reprints of the greatest of past crime fiction and terrific original stories that prove that hardboiled writing is still very much alive and well in the early years of the new, all-too-bloody-so-far, century. Now this is saying something, but GETTING OFF just might be the best book HCC has ever published. Lawrence Block (writing as Jill Emerson) does not just push the boundaries of fiction, he blows them away. This is a book you are never going to forget reading if you give it a chance.
First, the obvious: the sex. There is a lot of explicit sex here, just about in every chapter. Indeed, this might be the most sexually explicit book ever published by a mainstream American publisher. And it is plenty violent as well. But it is also a noir masterpiece. Block has written a book equal to anything ever written by noir masters like James M. Cain or Jim Thompson. His work now resides among the giants of the genre. GETTING OFF is a heck of a wild ride and loads of fun. Once you pick it up, you are not putting it down. Just remember to pay for it first in the bookstore.
The plot is very straightforward. The story starts with a mysterious woman whose name is Katherine, but we will come to know her as Kimmie. She uses a lot of names and travels frequently. She picks up a well-dressed, super confident man in a New York Hell’s Kitchen bar. They return to his apartment, do the deed, and she knocks him out with a roofie. She then quietly slides a kitchen knife between his ribs and into his heart. Once she relieves him of his cash, she slips out the door.
As the Great Recession leaves 25 million Americans without gainful employment, Kimmie has found an entirely new career at which she is an expert. But this is not your ubiquitous serial killer novel that you have read a million times before or some Hollywood-bound teenage slasher tale. We soon learn of her background, and Kimmie hits on a new idea: have sex and remove from the planet every man she has ever slept with until the number is reduced to zero.
Block takes us deep into the noir world. And one of the rules of noir is that the ordinary world is turned right on its head. The book is as chilling as it is sexually prurient. And Block has created not a killer we fear and loathe, but a strong, independent, attractive woman. This is a tale not of vengeance or mayhem ultimately, but of self-discovery. Block gets us rooting for this killer because we can understand her fully; we see the world from her perspective.
Block writes, “And then --- bingo! --- he was dead, and that was the best of all. Oh, she had been with plenty of dead men, but her interest in them had always ended with the sweet delight of their dying. Once they were dead, once she absorbed the sense of accomplishment and completion their deaths afforded her, she was ready to move on. They were off the list, out of her life even as they were out of their own…”
In true noir tradition, bad has now become good. And people who get hung up on the sex will miss entirely the greatness of the story. There is no black or white here. Kimmie is not a monster, but a badly damaged human being trying to survive as best she can. In the process, she explodes the small cruelties and major arrogance at the heart of many casual sexual relationships.
And we see her humanity in a few beautifully written chapters where she interacts with an ex-one night stand: a soldier who came back from Iraq a living vegetable trapped in a body that is now mostly gone. And in a few pages, Block has written a powerful anti-war story, showing us the picture of war the media rarely reveals, exposing the lies behind words like glory and honor.
Block then goes on to write some of the most terrifying chapters in recent noir fiction, like when Kimmie encounters a male serial killer who has chosen her to be his next victim. In the noir world, nothing is as it seems, and a simple walk at night can turn instantly into an out-of-control nightmare. And then she is picked up by a couple, and we learn the husband --- a rapist --- wants to get a taste of what it is like to kill. We delight in watching the battle of killers. And Block is so much in control of his narrative that the outcome is always in doubt, and we keep turning the pages.
The tension builds relentlessly throughout. And the closer to the ending we get, the more absorbing the story becomes. Will she slip up? Will she accomplish her mission? Will she get caught and brought to justice? But what is justice in the world of noir? Is any such thing even possible if everybody is guilty on some level?
This is the book Cain or Thompson could have written if they had not lived in the age of the Hollywood Production Code and strict censorship of all printed matter dealing with sex. Think of Phyllis Dietrichson, the ultimate noir femme fatale. Block has created a character here who is her equal, if not better. And this is ultimately a great novel because the story is true to Kimmie’s character. It is authentic, with a perfect ending.
Lawrence Block gives us a peek into the darkness --- darkness that exists all around us, even in broad daylight --- without giving into despair. GETTING OFF is one of the best books of this or any year. Congratulations to Block, who now needs to bring Kimmie back in a sequel. And kudos also to Charles Ardai, editor and publisher of Hard Case Crime, for bringing back the books so many of us love. Look for three more Hard Case books coming this fall, and eventually every other month, hopefully for a long time to come.
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on September 22, 2011