If we get the heroes we deserve, then somebody has been a very bad boy. We're used to PIs with personal problems, but former police Detective Pitkin is about as dark as I've come across. To paraphrase Chandler, down these dark streets a man must walk, because he's the only man darker than the people he meets. Not that Pitkin is a bad guy, and his desperate search for some kind of purity grows more touching as more of his back story comes across. This is a good man gone to the depths of the world.
Since leaving the police force (and there's reference here to a previous appearance in Sykes' fiction) Pitkin has become anathema to his former colleagues, and untouchable to old friends. Set on the search for a missing girl - victim of a kidnap/extortion plot gone wrong - Pitkin battles against more than just the traditional set of bad guys. He also finds himself up against the entrenched apathy of a society where everybody has their own problems, and nobody can find much sympathy for one more sad case in a bleak landscape of self-interest and crushing austerity. Sykes touches on many themes familiar to readers of his short stories, and the novella is packed tight with emotional, psychopathical and sociological material. Add in some perversion, some guns and some tough guys, a couple of rough angels, and shake well.
Hard Cold Shoulder really is as hard and cold as promised. I couldn't give away any more about Pitkin without spoilers, but if you like fiction with edge, this is as edgy as it gets. Like a lot of classic noir, it has a distinctly psychological edge, but the prose and the action are all hardboiled: in a lean, tight story, there's no space for self-reflection. The reader, as with the hero, can only be propelled from one bad spot to the next. In a plot as grim and gritty as they come, Pitkin can only hope to survive to the end, and if he picks up a couple of scars on the way, they're nothing compared to the stains already apparent on his soul.
A surprisingly dark, thoughtful, action-filled, hard-boiled thriller with a heart as black as pitch. If you like dark fiction, this is it.