Like television, the paperback novel helped democratize culture, making literature available to anyone with spare change and pocket room. Also like television, the form didn't always live up to its most high-minded proponents. Thankfully. Behind lurid covers of pistol-toting tough guys and femmes fatales in dangerous situations, crime writers plumbed into the underworlds of contemporary life. Some did so artlessly, but the cream—Ed McBain, Mickey Spillane, Elmore Leonard, and many others—tended to rise, finding their own unique voices within their crime-genre trappings. Even the worst of the bunch helped create a vision of a post-war America that wasn't all Chevrolets and happy endings.
The crime paperback didn't so much fade as change form, getting respectable with the passing of time when it wasn't getting watered down by countless TV cop shows. Co-created by Max Phillips and Charles Ardai, the Hard Case Crime book line looks to take the form back to its roots, wrapping striking covers around both new and old works in the pulp paperback mold. So far, Hard Case has attracted A-list talent like Erle Stanley Gardner and Donald E. Westlake while livening up bookshelves with the cover art of Glen Orbik and R.B. Farrell. But the signing of Stephen King for The Colorado Kid, his first novel following a short-lived retirement, marks the line's greatest publicity coup.
A yarn capable of being consumed over the span of two bus rides, Kid is considerably less hard-boiled than the bulk of Hard Case's output. Set on an island off the coast of Maine, it unspools over a long summer afternoon in which two aging newspapermen recall the discovery of a dead body two decades earlier while subtly testing the skills of their summer intern. It's filled with local color, memorable characters, and well-realized details, and it works toward a conclusion that will not-so-subtly test a lot of readers' patience.
It's an almost-perverse touch that King's contribution to a publisher honoring genre fiction would end with a hard kick against genre conventions. But in its own way, it's an appropriate touch. The secret to crime fiction's appeal doesn't really rest in the plots, no matter how twisty or well-realized. It's in the milieu. King's quiet, slow story owes little to Raymond Chandler or Jim Thompson, but as a gentle introduction to the worlds they created, it works quite well, finding death and mystery in a nice peaceful place where such things aren't supposed to happen. Now, as in the crime paperback's heyday, the message remains the same: Be watchful. Wherever you make your home, evil and temptation will follow.