For months, Hard Case Crime publisher Charles Ardai has been hinting at a "surprise" book to be published in December, and even when news broke that the paperback line would be bringing out a never-before-published novel by Donald Westlake next April, he still kept mum on what this secret book would be: "That one's a fun little treat and we'd like to keep it a surprise till we're closer to the publication date," Ardai said in his most recent newsletter. "It's got a Glen Orbik cover that will knock your socks off and might make you do a double take when you see it...but you'll have to wait till colder weather arrives to find out why."
Well, as you can see, wait no more, for the secret book is no longer secret - it's actually THE VALLEY OF FEAR by one A.C. Doyle, originally published by George H. Doran in 1915, and if the few of you haven't figured it who it's about by now, the back cover copy ought to spell things out more clearly:
YEARS AGO, A P.I. OUT OF CHICAGO
BROUGHT JUSTICE TO A DIRTY TOWN.
NOW HE’S GOING TO PAY.
A sawed-off shotgun blast to the face leaves one man dead – and reveals a secret that has pursued another across an ocean and set the world’s most ruthless criminal on his trail. The man needs the help of a great detective…but could even Sherlock Holmes save him now?
What's odd is how I originally stumbled onto this piece of news: I was doing my rounds through Amazon's advanced search making sure that I had all the crime fiction to be published in November and December on my radar, when up popped this strange little listing. The cover's there in miniature but all of the metadata is for CRIMSON by Gord Rollo, a mass market paperback horror novel originally published in 2002 by Prime books but reissued by Leisure. Ardai himself was bemused at the switcheroo: "I don't know how Amazon's listing got screwed up, but I didn't mind that it did, since it actually helped keep the listing unnoticed for longer than would have been the case in the absence of such a screw-up. (If you search for VALLEY OF FEAR, the book doesn't show up. Similarly, it doesn't get suggested if you search for other Hard Case Crime books. We didn't do this deliberately, but I didn't mind when it happened.)"
From the days when Max [Phillips] and I first launched Hard Case Crime, one of the things I wanted to do was to repackage a classic novel in full Hard Case "drag". This would be a tip of the hat to the shameless attempts publishers in the 1950s made to present works of literature as though they were lurid pulp novels. Signet was particularly good at it -- see what they did with FRANKENSTEIN and 1984. (Has there ever been a less sexy book than 1984? I don't think so. And yet Signet illustrated the cover with a sultry babe wearing an unzipped jumpsuit and an "Anti-Sex League" button while a leather-clad bullyboy looks on like a refugee from a Tom of Finland drawing. And how did FRANKENSTEIN become the story of a bosomy lipsticked redhead spilling out of an off-the-shoulder yellow dress?)
So: I thought it would be great fun to do a book like this. The question was what classic novel to do. The key, I thought, was to pick something that superficially seemed miles apart from a Hard Case Crime book -- as many miles apart as FRANKENSTEIN was from bosomy redheads -- but that deep down, at its core, was legitimate Hard Case Crime material, so that if our readers actually sat down and read the thing, they'd feel it all made sense -- that the book did, in fact, belong in our line.
And that led me inevitably to THE VALLEY OF FEAR. Clearly it's a classic, and you don't get more superficially un-Hard Case than Arthur Conan Doyle -- in some ways, he seems to represent everything that the sort of writers we normally publish were rebelling against. But when you get past the opening sequence with its charming Victoriana and ciphers and manor houses and such, THE VALLEY OF FEAR actually turns out to be an honest-to-god hardboiled crime novel, and quite a dark and violent one at that. (In fact, Leslie Klinger, author of THE NEW ANNOTATED SHERLOCK HOLMES, has called THE VALLEY OF FEAR "the first real 'hard-boiled' detective story.")
For heaven's sake, half the book is set in America, in a depressed coal mining town run by a corrupt Masonic lodge, and it tells the story of a man who comes to town pretending to be a criminal out of Chicago on the run from the police but then turns out to be a Pinkerton P.I. out to clean up the dirty town. The Pinkerton agent succeeds in his mission but emerges a marked man, doomed to spend the rest of his life on the run from the lodge's followers, who chase him across an ocean and (with the help of Professor Moriarty) finally manage to corner and kill him. The ending is noir through and through -- all the mighty intellect of Sherlock Holmes is powerless to prevent this good man from meeting his bloody fate.
Having chosen the book, there was nothing left to do other than to dress it up in the most alluring outfit and makeup we could supply -- to craft a version of THE VALLEY OF FEAR that looked as little like any version anyone had ever seen before as Signet's FRANKENSTEIN looked like the Boris Karloff version. Hence, no deerstalker cap on the cover, no pipe, no violin; nothing that said Victorian-era London; no reference to Sherlock Holmes on the front cover and only the most oblique reference on the back. Hence, the author's truncated monicker, and the reference to THE LOST WORLD (maybe some readers will think of the Spielberg movie of the same name), and the presence of the bosomy dame and the man with the branded forearm (it's an actual scene from the book, I swear). It's all an attempt to throw off the normal cues that would trigger a reader's dismissive "Oh, I know that book" or "I know that author" reaction and force him or her to take a fresh look at the book, to see it in a new light. It's a hell of a good book and deserves to be read as the gripping, vital, violent, frightening, chilling story it is, not as an ossified 'classic' only suitable for schoolchildren.
In a way, the Hard Case Crime reissue of THE VALLEY OF FEAR is akin to what Josh Glenn and Rob Walker have been doing with Significant Objects, a project whose thesis is that an object whose original monetary value was minimal will have its worth driven up with a short work of fiction about it. (Full disclosure: I'm an upcoming contributor to the site that already features folks like Lydia Millet, Luc Sante, Stewart O'Nan and Nicholson Baker.) All of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes novels, including THE VALLEY OF FEAR, are available in the public domain, easily downloaded - for free. But Glen Orbik's cover and clever repackaging suddenly re-invests new significance into an old novel, and might also introduce the books to a new audience that may have resisted reading about the Great Detective.
Which leads to one more bit of happy convergence that Ardai notes: Hard Case Crime had "no idea" that the film version of SHERLOCK HOLMES directed by Guy Ritchie - which puts a tougher, more adventure-laden spin on the canonical characters - would be released into theaters just four days after the republication of THE VALLEY OF FEAR. "[It] makes me think maybe there was something in the air, that got the two of us thinking along the same lines," Ardai added. "He is the director of a short film called "The Hard Case," after all..."