Dan Simmons was already well into his writing career when he began the Joe Kurtz series. Prior to the first book, Hardcase (2001), Simmons was known as first a science fiction and then later as a horror writer. Most recently Simmons has been writing books that are more ambitious in scope, often historical in setting, and which straddle genres. A fine example would be his recent novel The Terror (2010), a fictional retelling of Sir John Franklin’s doomed expedition to the Arctic in 1845, which has a strong supernatural component as well as thriller and romance elements.
One notable constant in Simmons’ writing has been his ability to move smoothly between genres, seemingly arriving in each new field as a seasoned pro with a solid grasp of what is required. He won several major awards in the science fiction field for his earliest books. When he moved into horror Stephen King claimed to be in awe of Simmons for his first horror effort, Carrion Comfort.
The three Joe Kurtz thrillers, which also include Hard Freeze (2002) and Hard as Nails (2003) are cases in point. They are ultra-hardboiled PI thrillers, all set in Buffalo, New York, that contain the absolute essence of pulp writing and nothing more. Even the titles are chosen for maximum impact.
Joe Kurtz is a former cop, a former private eye, an ex-con and parolee. He’s also an orphan, and there is a tantalising hint in the third book that he is the bastard son of Richard Stark’s Parker. Kurtz did 12 years in Attica for the murder of the criminal, Eddie Falco, who had raped and killed his partner, Samantha. After extracting his confession, Kurtz threw Falco out of a sixth storey window and waited to be arrested. While inside he acted as a bodyguard for Little Skag Farino, the son of a local mafia don. He killed a Muslim gang leader and then survived with a $10,000 fatwa on his head.
The Farino crime family feature heavily in all three books. In the first book Byron, the head of the family, hires Joe the day after his release from Attica to investigate the mob’s missing accountant. The book ends with Byron, and his eldest daughter, Sophia, dead. Trying to double-cross Joe is not something that ends well for anyone in this series.
Hard Freeze begins with the remaining Farino daughter, Angelina, taking out a hit on him. In the final book Joe and Angelina are forced to work together by circumstance, with Joe looking for the men that killed his parole officer and Angelina looking for the crew that are killing her street-level dealers.
Another constant is Arlene Demarco, a chain-smoking and incredibly resourceful woman who worked for Joe prior to his incarceration, and who requires little persuasion to quit her boring legal secretarial work to help him since his release. The couple set up a legitimate business matching up old flames via the internet to pay the rent, since Joe, as a felon, can no longer officially work as an investigator.
Simmons invests as much effort with his secondary characters. Big Bore Redhawk is a fantastic creation. A fellow Attica ex-con, he tries to kill Joe for money and ends up with a bullet in his knee in Hard Freeze, and then dead in the boot of a mafia car in Hard as Nails. He’s an exemplar of the criminal who makes the fatal mistake of overestimating his own abilities while underestimating his enemy.
The last two storylines involve serial killers. In Hard Freeze, Joe is hired by a cancer-stricken concert pianist to find the man who killed his daughter, a master of changing identities and now hiding in plain sight as a homicide captain. In Hard as Nails, The Dodger, a disfigured escapee from a maximum security psychiatric hospital, has been killing people and using their corpses as stand-in patrons at a defunct pleasure ground.
All of the books in the series are highly recommended. Joe R Lansdale, himself the author of at least one bona fide classic, said of Hard Freeze: “It slaps around the traditional crime novel and makes it like it.”
Hardcase remains my personal favourite. The others are no less exciting or well written, but I read the series in order and the first few chapters of Hardcase, where I was introduced to this crazy force of nature and the criminal world around him that Simmons created, will always be extra special for me. Luckily for you Mulholland Books has republished them in affordable paperback editions which are easy to acquire.