Lately I've been exploring Lawrence Block -- I tore through the first Bernie Rhodenbarr book and one about Matthew Scudder, which gave me an inkling of his range, and, just to round things out, I brought home all four Keller books for the holiday weekend -- so, since I was in the groove, I decided to jump ahead a bit and read another of Block's Hard Case titles.
The Girl with the Long Green Heart was originally published in 1965. It's about Johnny Hayden, a retired grifter. After a miserable seven-year stint in San Quentin, he's been playing it straight -- working in a bowling alley, taking correspondence courses in hotel management and saving every penny. At the rate he's saving, in ten years, he'll have enough money to buy a local hotel. Ten years. In ten years, he'll be fifty.
So when his old associate Doug Rance shows up with a plan for a long con that'll set him up with enough cash to buy the hotel, he decides to do this one last job. It's a job that requires help on the inside. Luckily, the mark's secretary has a big reason to hate her boss... and, as it turns out, she's a natural at the grifter's game.
I really loved this one. Johnny tells his story simply and believably in a voice that has that noir accent without ever feeling like a caricature. Which is impressive. He jumps from the main story to flashback and back again so seamlessly that I kept falling into the flashbacks and forgetting that the main story even existed -- his voice made everything that vivid and real and in-the-now.
I didn't want to care about him -- long con stories so often go the same way that I generally try not to get attached -- but he was just so damn likable. His narration of the game moved along with lots of those how-to details that I love, and while, due to the conventions of the genre, I guessed at some of the twists before they came, I had no idea how Johnny would react or what the outcome would be. Surprises came fast and furious towards the end, and the ending itself left me feeling a whole lot happier than I expected it to -- it was so nice to run into a grifter without a tendency towards deep dark depression.
(cross-posted at Bookshelves of Doom)