Friday, April 3, 2009

Grifter's Game -- Lawrence Block
Hard Case Crime, #1

Joining the Hard Case Crime book club was the best $6-a-month investment I made last year. (It was also the only one I made, but I'm confident that if there'd been others, it would still be on top.) Sometimes the books are reprints with awesome new covers, sometimes they're original publications, some of them are stronger pieces of writing than others, but they've all been entertaining. They make me happy. If you enjoy the crime genre and aren't offended by the un-PC (especially in regards to how the ladies are treated), they're well worth a read.

Since I jumped in somewhere in the mid-50's, I have, of course, been worrying about what I missed. So I decided to go back to the beginning and read their releases in order.

Grifter's Game was the first Hard Case release. It was originally published in 1961 as Mona. It's about con artist Joe Marlin, who's been pulling the old check-in-to-a-hotel-and-stay-for-a-while-before-taking-off-without-paying scam. It's an easy way to stay comfortable, well-fed and well-hydrated, but it's much easier to pull off if you're carrying expensive luggage when you check in -- hotel clerks are less likely to ask for money up front that way. So he steals some suitcases.

Which turn out to contain a large amount of uncut heroin.

And then he meets the wife of the man who owns the suitcases.

And falls in love with her. And she with him. And so the husband has to go, one way or another. Leading Joe Marlin to say, "I don't know whether the kiss was a sign of love or a bargain sealed with lipstick instead of blood."

I've read quite a lot of crime novels. And watched lots of film noir. So the set-up was a familiar one. The first thirty pages -- where Block sets the stage with Joe scamming rich women and hotel clerks -- seemed so familiar that I almost got up and started going through my recent reads to look for another book with that same situation. Almost.

But even after I hit the point where I was totally and completely positive that I hadn't already read the book, I kept waiting for the situation to play out as I expected it. Because crime novels where A GUY KILLS FOR THE LOVE OF A BEAUTIFUL WOMAN WHO TOTALLY HAS THE MADONNA/WHORE THING GOING ON don't usually end well for the guy. But then I started wondering if maybe this story was going to be different -- and right up until the last few pages, I really didn't know which way it was going to go. I had no idea that Lawrence Block was so tricky.

Apart from the trickiness of Lawrence Block's from-left-field-I-totally-didn't-expect-it-and-I'm-going-to-be-thinking-about-it-for-a-good-long-while plot twist, I loved the details about Joe Marlin covering his tracks -- like switching license plates on a car before stealing it -- and I loved Joe Marlin's musings about memory, the emotional baggage that comes with murder and about how the moments that haunt you aren't necessarily the ones that one would expect. He's not a quipping cold-blooded killer by any means, which made the last quarter of the book especially effective.

Though I'm very familiar with Lawrence Block's name, I'm not all that familiar with his books. That's going to change.

(cross-posted at Bookshelves of Doom)


Scott Parker said...

I'll admit that I, like you, was a bit bored as I read the first few pages of GG. Then, it picked up and the ending twist smacked me in the face. The glow I had upon reaching the end filtered back to the beginning and now I consider GG one of HCC's best books.

Scott said...

I actually listened to the audiobook of this one. I had just read Block's "Telling Lies and Getting Paid for It," which is one of the best books about writing I've ever read. The guy's voice kept the predictibilty low, because he was just so smooth. Anyway, the ending is certainly one of the best I have ever read. I said to myself, "Holy Cow." I kept trying to get my friends to read it, because I just wanted to tell them. Great ending.

david elzey said...

I was in the bookstore the other day and stumbled onto Stephen King's contribution, The Colorado Kid, and was intrigued by the series. Great review.