Every year, the mystery community mourns the deaths of notable authors, but the toll has been remarkably high of late. In 2005, we lost Ed McBain and in 2006, Mickey Spillane; last year, we said goodbye to Michael Dibdin, Magdalen Nabb and Ira Levin, to name only a few. Just a month into 2008, eternity has already claimed presidential daughter Margaret Truman, romantic suspense pioneer Phyllis A. Whitney, PI author Benjamin Schutz and prolific short-story giant Edward D. Hoch. As a result, I now dread clicking onto the Gumshoe Site (the genre’s longest-running blog) for fear of what I’ll discover next.
The slow schedule of the publishing industry, however, means that these writers continue to publish new work after their deaths. Hoch may fall short of his long-hoped-for goal of 1,000 published short stories, but it will be some time before we see his final tally because Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, his home for the last 35 years, has several more still to run.
Levin was working on a novel before his death, although how close it is to publication remains to be seen. Dibdin’s last Aurelio Zen novel was published last August with the ironic title of “End Games,” while Nabb’s final novel will arrive in June.
As for Spillane, the appealing pulp throwback “Dead Street” (Hard Case Crime: 210 pp., $6.99 paper) is merely his first posthumous novel; three more (including a new Mike Hammer tale) are contracted to appear as a result of the hard work by his protégé Max Allan Collins, a prolific writer in his own right.
But by some quirk of fate, St. Martin’s Press finds itself with three posthumous novels by different authors released within weeks of each other. The three represent an intriguing cross-section of the genre, from hard- to soft-boiled, from writers whose careers ended quietly or were snuffed out prematurely.
Rick Nelson’s debut novel, “Bound by Blood” (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s: 294 pp., $24.95), suggests a cruel hypothetical: If you could publish a novel but had to die two months before it was published, would you take that deal? Nelson died of cancer just before Christmas, giving his first and final effort more gravitas than the book on its own terms might deserve.
It’s not that “Bound by Blood” is bad; in fact, it offers some welcome twists on the procedural noir template, especially in regard to 50-something New Orleans police detective Jack Brenner’s commitment to Jewish observance, and his investigation of his cousin David’s once-cold murder case. But thicker-than-molasses pacing and muted characterizations quiet what, considering the premise, ought to be a pulse-elevating thriller.
The opposite is true of Joe Hensley, a veteran mystery and science-fiction author who succumbed to leukemia last August at age 81. “Snowbird’s Blood” (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s: 230 pp., $24.95) may not have been intended as his last work, but its setting, among Florida’s seasonal elderly migrants, lends the feel of finality. Here, we find a more successful subversion of noir conceits. The book revolves around an antihero named Cannert, whose once rough-and-tumble instincts, dulled by terminal cancer, are awakened anew when his beloved wife, Martha, goes missing. Hensley renders a stunning portrait of a man “taking too damned long to die” and of sinister misdeeds affecting a sector of the population not normally associated with crime.
Eddie Bunker lies precisely in the middle of the Nelson-Hensley spectrum. He died of cancer in 2005, and his long, checkered life included many prison stints (most famously as San Quentin’s youngest inmate), as well as a literary career that began with the 1973 novel “No Beast So Fierce,” which was turned into the Dustin Hoffman film “Straight Time.” Bunker went on to publish four more books during his lifetime, but he left behind a trove of manuscripts -- six novels and hundreds of short stories -- all of which predate “No Beat So Fierce.”
“Stark” (St. Martin’s Minotaur: 224 pp., $23.95) is the first of these manuscripts to see print, a slender effort that tells the story of Ernie Stark, “a two-bit hustler who dreamt that the next score would be the big one. The one that would put him on easy street.” As Stark already knows, however, and as he’ll learn again and again throughout the course of the novel, “too often, he was outsmarted. If not by the sucker, then by the law.” Stark means this literally; early in the book, a police detective blackmails him into informing on local drug dealer Momo Mendoza. Yet in the end, his desire to hit the jackpot overrides everything, especially loyalty.
Bunker’s depiction of the seedy side of the Bay Area in the early 1960s is stripped to the bone. Stark’s sometime girl Dorie (who is, in turn, a sometime girl to Momo) is doomed by a constant need to put needles into her veins, but Bunker makes clear that she’s in more trouble because of the shifting allegiances and cruel indifference of the men in her life. When she suggests to Stark that he might try to be less hard, he responds with laughter. “That ain’t me. I look after number one. Me.”
This naked survivalist instinct is what makes “Stark” a black-hearted con game, one where the rules don’t just fall away, but, in nihilistic fashion, never existed at all. As posthumous novels go, this one has a startling freshness that should return Bunker to literary life.
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