St. Martin Minotaur, 2003, 357 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-312-99468-0
It’s a widely-held belief that Dan Simmons can excel in any genre he chooses to write. While that’s not always true, it’s hard to find counter-examples. (In hindsight, his foray in techno-thriller, Darwin’s Blade, was enjoyable but ultimately ridiculous thanks to an accumulation of talents in its protagonist.) With Hard as Nails, Simmons at least keeps proving that he can write a hard-boiled mystery series as well as anyone.
This is private investigator Joe Kurtz’s third adventure, and it’s just as harsh and unpleasant as Hard Case and Hard Freeze. Buffalo-area Kurtz’s life so far has been filled with shootouts and broken bones (his and others), so we know that Hard as Nail is going to remain true to form when the novel begins with “On the day he was shot in the head, things were going strangely well for Joe Kurtz.”
Both Kurtz and his parole officer end the first chapter at the hospital, badly wounded. But Kurtz wastes no time in getting pampered by the American medical system: he self-checks out a few pages later, popping aspirins and putting himself on the case. It’s not as if he’s got too few enemies to suspect: in between decades of lousy behaviour, a stint in prison, and the events of the first two novels, Kurtz is going to have more trouble finding out who doesn’t want to kill him. Especially given how most of those who don’t want to kill him always add “…yet.” to their reassurances. By mid-book, headache-ridden Kurtz has been promised death so many times that it looks as if his first-chapter survival was just one more bit of bad luck.
It wouldn’t be a Kurtz book without multiple antagonists, and so Hard as Nails multiplies the complications, landing Kurtz in the cross-hairs of rival criminal gangs, a mafia princess, the police and a serial killer who enjoys what he does. Recurring paid assassin “The Dane” is soon added to the mix. If you think that Kurtz will need an army to make it to the end of the book, well, you’re not wrong.
The muscular nature of hard-boiled mysteries is ably reflected in the author’s no-nonsense prose, which charges forward without fuss or fanciness. Simmons is a professional, and he knows when to stick to efficient prose: At a snappy 357 pages, Hard As Nails is a pleasure to read and a remarkable page-turner.
It’s also, obviously, a bit of a mess. There’s a price to pay for outrageous plotting, and Hard As Nails often goes over the top. As in Hard Freeze, the mixture of straightforward mob crime drama and grotesque serial killer mystery remains a challenge to manage efficiently, and it’s the serial killer angle that ultimately exasperates with self-conscious labels such as “The Artful Dodger” given to the serial killer in question. There’s also a tendency for the plot to become so complex that readers will stop trying to piece it together and just accept what happens, shrug, and go on. It would also be best for new readers to read all three Kurtz novel in short order in order to keep in mind all of the various bit players in Kurtz’s life. It may be no accident if the ending comes as a bit of a melodramatic deus ex machina that cuts through complications with a precise kill, exactly like the end of the second volume.
All of which may explain why, five years after publication, Hard As Nails remains the last volume in the Joe Kurtz series. I presume that Simmons’ well-demonstrated desire to keep writing new things is at play here (Hard as Nails was followed by the SF dyptich Illium/Olympos, then by the horror-thriller The Terror), but genre fatigue may also be a factor when it looks as if every single hardboiled plot device has been crammed in those first three books.
But even if this ends up being the last Joe Kurtz adventure, the result is a generally enjoyable third volume in an equally good series. Joe Kurtz has taken more damage than anyone would reasonably expect: A little rest can only do him good.