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by Charles Ardai
Hard Case Crime, April 2024
397 pages
ISBN: 1803366265

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Charles Ardai's short-story collection Death Comes Too Late is a selection of bitter, hard-boiled little bon-bons, each a sharply realized example of the kind of pulp fiction that used to be available in magazines and paperbacks, at newsstands, drugstores, and airports all over the country. The outlets for these stories are more limited nowadays, which is a shame, because their impact is as fiercely entertaining as ever.

They're all here: gangsters, goons, molls, femmes fatales, jealous husbands, jilted wives, and a couple of Confucian monks. Part of the fun of this anthology is that although every story evokes a rich sense of place, it's clear that hard-boiled crime is not about a specific place, but a specific state of mind. One story begins in Times Square, near the end of WWII, and follows the bittersweet history of two generations, across half a century: the location remains the same, but appears altogether different at the tale's conclusion. Crooks of every age, gender and social class wreak splendid havoc, committing theft, murder and mayhem in all corners of the world. Sometimes justice is served, sometimes not; occasionally the police, or a private eye are involved, but just as often, civilians take matters into their own hands.

Every story is tightly constructed, with a satisfying – often surprising - conclusion. The biggest surprise, however, is how many of them are not just about crime, but about love. Ardai is hardly a sentimental writer, but his tough talking narrators speak of deeply felt love, longing and betrayal, between lovers, and spouses, among parents and children. Near the end, one brother asks another, "'if it came to that, would you kill to defend me?'" The reply: "' I am your brother …Heaven grant me good aim.'" Filial love, starcrossed love, unrequited love: each inflicts its own kind of damage.

Ardai demonstrates that often, the straightest, most painful shot, the one hardest to avoid, and hardest from which to recover, is the one aimed at the heart.

§ Mary-Jane Oltarzewski is an Assistant Teaching Professor with the Rutgers University Writing Program. In her spare time, she enjoys coffee crawls, listening to jazz and show tunes, and spending time in the Catskills with her husband, and a cat who bears a strong resemblance to the Reviewing the Evidence mascot.

Reviewed by Mary-Jane Oltarzewski, March 2024

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