Lawrence Block


"A Diet of Treacle"

(Reviewed by Hagen Baye MAY 17, 2008)

With Hard Case Crime’s release of Lawrence Block’s Lucky at Cards last year, it permitted Block to obey the biblical directive not to hide one’s talents under a bushel. Lucky was originally published under the pen name of Sheldon Lord, and we first learn that Block wrote it only with its publication by Hard Case Crime.  With Hard Case Crime’s 2008 release of Block’s A Diet of Treacle, originally published as Pads are for Passion (A Diet of Treacle was Block’s original title, but his publisher rejected it as “too artsy”) in 1961 also under the Sheldon Lord by-line, Block takes a further step on the straight and narrow.  And with the planned Hard Case Crime publication of another pseudonymous work of Block’s in January 2009, entitled Killing Castro this time around, Block continues to reveal some the of "hidden" early works.  (Block is said to have written numerous erotic books early in his career under pen names that he will never own up to due to those books’ decidedly inferior quality.)

The setting for Diet is Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side of New York City during the late 50’s and early 60’s.  There are three principal characters and they have varying degrees of affiliation with the so-called beats, many of whom migrated to, congregated at or settled in the Village or the neighboring Lower East Side and were adherents of sorts of the Beat Writers, like “Saint” Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Boroughs, and consisted of those who to certain degrees had dropped out of the straight or square life and were the precursors to the drug culture that arose during the 1960’s, which would eventually establish in-roads into all segments  of U.S. society.

The principal characters in Diet include Shank, aka Leon Marston, a 20-year-old high school dropout, who is also a military service reject, based on a psychological assessment of his being a psychopath.  His acquired name is on account of the knife he carried at all times.  He is incapable and uninterested in holding down a steady job and makes ends meet by peddling pot.   In Shank’s way of thinking, there are two kinds of people, squares whom he wanted no part of and hipsters with whom he fully related.

Then, there is Joe Milani, seven years Shank’s senior.  Joe is into the hip culture, especially insofar as it excused him from working and permitted him to get high and engage in free love.  However, Joe is nevertheless conflicted and debates with himself about whether he is the way he is because he is a screw-up or because the world is messed up.  For the time being, the latter view influences his actions and Joe essentially does nothing and lives off roommate Shank’s drug dealing earnings, which Shank is only too happy to do for a fellow misfit and dropout.

Finally, enter Anita Carbone, an attractive college student who makes periodic visits to the Village to check out that scene.  Joe picks her up, and she eventually asks to move in with him.  She is confused about herself and is bored with the direction her life is destined to go if she stays on the square track it’s on.  As it is, she would marry her engineer boyfriend and end up in a split-level house in suburbia with “2-point-3” kids and all the appointed accessories of middle class life.  She wants more and thinks Joe’s way of life is the path out of deadly boredom.  It takes some doing for her to adjust to the life of drugs and uninhibited sex and not doing much else.  There is an immediate mutual dislike between Anita and Shank, and soon after she moves in with Shank and Joe, Anita insists that she and Joe get their own place, which insistence takes on some urgency on her part after Shank rapes her and swears her to secrecy with his knife.

Such a move requires income, which in turn means that she and/or Joe had to get a job.  Fortuitously or not, when Shank’s pot supplier is put out of commission by incarceration, a new supplier introduces Shank to the more lucrative field of heroin sales.  In addition to the greater profit margins, the new supplier also touts how Shank’s new client base of addicted junkies would be less likely to rat him out to the cops for fear of being cut off by other dealers for such disloyalty.  So, when Joe tells Shank that he needs to find work for the new apartment, Shank is in a position to offer Joe a job assisting for him with his booming business.  Joe gratefully accepts; he concedes that he’d never be able to go (and stick with) the 9-to-5 route.

Shank’s new dealer forgot to mention that the police are also more vigilant in pursuing heroin dealers, and when a narc corners Shank, something terrible happens (the book’s cover art depicts the scene), and Shank, Joe and Anita are forced to skip town immediately and flee from the law. 

Tension about this turn of events and conflicts arising out the relative degree of culpability among them and due to Shank's resorting to violent crimes to raise money to fund their flight (which landed them in Chicago, after stops in Buffalo and Cleveland), compound their predicament and put them on a collision course that comes to a head at the end of the story.

In addition to Diet’s significance as being one of Block's first published works, it is also significant as being a period piece about the "beat generation" of the late 50's/early 60's, written contemporaneously with that period.  Block makes a pointed critique of this emerging segment of society, small as it was, though it would nevertheless influence future generations.  Block summarizes his feeling about this phenomenon through the following thoughts he put into Anita’s mind:
“In rejecting the values of a society they couldn’t cope with, they had made the drastic mistake of setting up their own society—every bit as illogical as the one they had rebelled against.  And they had bowed to their own society’s false values while they had rejected a little too vehemently the false values of the repudiated society.”

Diet is a truly fine piece of writing by the early Block, a precursor to the prodigious, masterful work to follow. By the way, “treacle” is an extremely sugary syrup.  The foreword of the book contains an excerpt from Alice in Wonderland  about persons who lived on treacle and who got very sick because of it. Treacle apparently symbolizes drugs and other excesses of the beat generation.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 11 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Diet of Treacle at Hard Case Crime

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"Lucky at Cards"

(Reviewed by Hagen Baye MAR 22, 2006)

Lucky at Cards is the third of Lawrence Block’s early books republished by Hard Case Crime, that series of books created in 2004 that reissues “lost pulp classics” and publishes new “hard-boiled” crime fiction—all in pocket size paperbacks and with distinctive cover art (like Lucky’s), reminiscent of the pulp fiction books of the past. 

Appropriately enough, Hard Case Crime’s inaugural book in September 2004 was Grifter’s Game, Lawrence Block’s very first published work, originally published in 1961 as Mona. The second of Block’s books re-released as Hard Case Crime’s 16th book was The Girl With The Long Green Heart, Block’s fifth published novel, first issued in 1965.

When originally published in 1964, Lucky at Cards bore the title of The Sexual Shuffle and Block published it under the pseudonym of Sheldon Lord.  As Block does not include any book published pseudonymously among the bibliographical lists included in his books and website, Lucky is more a hidden than a “lost” work of pulp fiction. 

Bill Maynard, the main character of Lucky, is an ex-magician who became a professional card sharp, or “card mechanic,” in the parlance.  He made the mistake of utilizing his craft in a game with Chicago mobsters, who—after he took them for some $2,000 (when $2,000 was a lot of money; don’t forget it was 1964, when it would cost Maynard a mere $60 to have two teeth capped and 85 cents for a hot pastrami sandwich and a cup of coffee) caught him in the act of dealing “seconds.” After they got him to refund his ill-gotten gains, as well as his own stake, they roughed him up enough so he needed to get two teeth fixed.

Maynard ended up in some unidentified town or small city to get the dental work done, before he grifted onto some other locale.  He became friendly with his dentist and gets invited to a friendly game of poker, where Maynard works his magic, as he is behind in his rent and generally short on cash.  During the course of the evening, without disclosing it to the other players, the host’s wife signals to Maynard that she knows what he is doing.

Joyce Rogers is a very attractive, voluptuous really, woman who is considerably younger than her husband, Murray.  She seeks Maynard out the day after the game and reveals that she was part of the “life,” missed the action, is attracted to Maynard and enlists him to assist her to get away from her husband with his money.  The problem is that murder (assuming they could get away with it) would only yield her a $100,000 trust fund with rights during her lifetime to its income only.  Divorce was out of the question, as Murray is a prominent attorney who would do everything in his considerable power and wealth to prevent her from getting anything more that a nominal amount.

Maynard is taken by this woman and concocts a scheme that appears to be virtually fool proof.  But wrinkles arise.  To keep up appearance (and for money), he takes a job recommended by Murray Rogers no less and does well at it.  Also in furtherance of his front, he accepts an invitation to round out a foursome at bridge with his dentist, the dentist’s wife and a young childless divorcee.  A relationship develops between Maynard and the divorcee and it serves to complicate his feelings toward the scam he has in the works.  He nevertheless goes through with his connivances and the results are—typical for this kind of Block story--quite unexpected.

Lucky at Cards is vintage Block, which means it is the work of a real craftsman in constructing a story that is engaging with a fascinating plot and interesting characters.  The plot’s twists and turns keep the reader on the edge of his/her seat to see the ultimate results and resolution of Maynard’s scam.

The reader will wonder why this book was hidden for over 40 years.  And despite this passage of time, the book remains quite real with respect to the workings of the human mind and emotions, notwithstanding the anachronistic elements of the story due to the era in which it is set, with the different value of money, cars with shift sticks, etc.
There is no question that this is a great addition to Hard Case Crime’s stable of books. 

  • Amazon readers rating: from 14 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Lucky at Cards at Hard Case Crime

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"The Girl with the Long Green Heart "

(Reviewed by Hagen Baye MAR 22, 2006)

The Girl With The Long Green Heart was Lawrence Block’s fifth published novel, originally published in 1965, and has now been re-released as Hard Case Crime’s 16th book. 

Unlike the typical modern day crime novel of at least 350 pages with a multitude of characters and layer upon layer of subplots, Green Heart, in true pulp fiction fashion, is a relatively simple story about two con men working a scam against a particular “mark” or “mooch.”   Doug Rance approaches John Hayden, released just 8 months prior from a 7-year stint at San Quentin on a 10-20 year grand larceny and extortion rap.  Rance has been in the “life” for a while, but had never taken the lead on a scam and run it from start to finish.  During a visit to Vegas, an opportunity comes his way and he wants the assistance of a more experienced man, like Hayden, to work the con.  Hayden after his years at the “Q” had decided to stay on the “square” and lead a straight life.  He is the night manager at a bowling alley and plans to put to use the hotel and restaurant management courses he took in jail and outside by buying a nearby run down motel and invigorating it with ideas he has.  However, after Rance outlines a seemingly flawless scam and after Hayden realizes that it would take him more than a decade to earn the money he needs to buy that motel and realize his dream, Hayden accepts Rance’s invite.

The scam targets Wallace Gunderman, who had been swindled to the tune of $20,000 as part of an earlier con by others selling worthless Canadian land, and Gunderman did not keep it a secret about how much he was bothered by having been taken, his being a prideful, self-made man.  Rance learned of Gunderman from Evelyn “Evvie” Stone, Gunderman’s secretary (and “the girl with the long green heart,” referring to the jade heart which decorated the necklace she wore the first time she met Hayden) with whom Gunderman was carrying on a long (and continuing) affair and whom he had jilted by not keeping his promise to marry her even after his wife died.  Evvie is eager to extract any revenge she can against Gunderman and is most willing to participate in the scam for a modest piece of the action.  Despite Hayden’s misgivings about involving an amateur as part of the scam (but with both acknowledging that neither could be romantically involved with this extremely attractive woman), Evvie becomes the insider member of the team, feeding her boss information Hayden and Rance want Gunderman to have, intercepting outgoing and incoming mail, and reporting Gunderman’s reactions every step of the way to Rance and Hayden.

Hayden approaches Gunderman on behalf of Barnstable Corporation to offer to purchase his worthless Canadian land for pennies on the dollar.  Gunderman hears that offers are also being made to others who were taken in by the same scam.  This makes Gunderman suspicious that there is more going on than meets the eye and his appetite is whetted. 

Rance and Hayden go to great lengths to make their operation look legitimate.  They hire an attorney to create a Canadian corporation (Barnstable Corporation), rent and outfit office space in Toronto, assemble a staff, print letterhead, open and fund a bank account and churn the account to signify heavy banking activity.  Through Evvie, they intercept letters of inquiry about Barnstable Gunderman sends to other scammed buyers, even recreate those buyer’s letterheads and forge responses to Gunderman’s inquiries, going so far as actually traveling to the various cities where those other buyers are located, so the envelopes would be postmarked from the buyers’ actual locales.  They spared no expense, no detail, that lent credibility to their efforts.  Further, they finessed their contacts with Gunderman, led him along cautiously, careful not to appear over anxious, but stringing him along all the way as he fell deeper and deeper into the trap they set for him, so that can use his shrewdness against him to get him to agree to buy out their (worthless) interest in Barnstable for over $100,000.

But even well planned cons can go awry and not end up as planned.  Double crosses are part and parcel of the life and wreck even a seeming flawlessly conceived and implemented scam.  However, one has to read this story to discover how the well-laid plans and devices of Rance and Hayden work out.  Among other things, the reader will see what happens when con men keep material information from each other.
Green Heart is a virtual primer on cons by Block.  He demonstrates how scammers operate, the details they attend to, the lingo they employ.  He brings out the mechanics of conning, both the practical and psychological ploys that are used to pull a con off.  He also raises the issue of whether someone like Hayden could ever truly go straight, whether the grifter way of life was in this kind of person’s blood.   (“…[A] man must be what he is and do what he is geared to do.”)  Typical of Block, even as a fledgling writer, the book is a most enjoyable and fascinating read.

As stated above, Hard Case Crime is in its second year of bringing back both old and new hard-boiled pulp crime fiction. One cannot but be impressed by the amazing array of authors it is publishing.  Besides Lawrence Block, there is Steven King, Donald Westlake (with books under his own name and as Richard Stark) and the recently deceased Ed McBain.  Hard Case Crime books also include works authored by the writers of such notable books as The Road to Perdition (Max Allan Collins), To Catch a Thief (David Dodge), and A Shot in the Dark (Richard Powell), as well as the writers who created the well-known characters of Matt Helm (Donald Hamilton) and Perry Mason (Eric Stanley Gardner)—to name only a handful.  And then there is the distinctive and provocative artwork specially commissioned by Hard Case Crime for its books’ covers, which recall the covers of the pulp fiction books of yesterday.  This series of books provide a valuable service by keeping this genre alive and readily available for those who miss it and for those who missed out on its earlier run.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 19 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Girl with the Long Green Heart at Hard Case Crime

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"Grifter's Game"

(Reviewed by Hagen Baye FEB 17, 2005)

Grifter's Game by Lawrence Block

Hard Case Crime™ Books are a new series of books consisting of the re-issue of “lost pulp classics” as well as the publication of new “hard-boiled” crime fiction. The paperback series, with truly pocket size books, is also distinguished by its emphasis on vintage book cover art, reminiscent of the classic crime fiction covers of the past. This series will delight those enamored with that distinctive style of writing, those who have yet to discover it, and those who just plain enjoy a good read. And if the first four books of the series are representative, this is a series not to be ignored. (See reviews of Fade to Blonde by Max Phillips, The Confession by Domenic Stansberry and Little Lost Girl by Richard Aleas)

Leading off the collection is the reissue of Lawrence Block’s first published novel, Grifter’s Game, which is Block's title for the book which was originally published in 1961 as Mona.

Joe Marlin is the grifter whose game is to go from town to town, seeking women with money and a willingness to part with it to a handsome gigolo. Marlin would then take off to repeat the pattern elsewhere. Having ripped off some woman in Philadelphia, Joe skips town, after stiffing the hotel (necessarily leaving all of his belongings but the clothes on his back), and heads to Atlantic City, where he promptly reaccessorizes himself with a couple of pieces of luggage he lifts from a seeming unsuspecting man.

A young woman, named Mona (hence, Block's original publisher's title for the book), approaches him at the beach, and Joe becomes so enthralled with her beauty that he soon is plotting with her to kill her husband so she and he could share his riches. It turns out the husband’s wealth is a result of ill-gotten gains from the dealing of drugs, about which Mona claims ignorance. Nevertheless, Marlin proceeds to kill the husband, but his well-laid plans encounter unexpected complications, when the widow does not rendezvous with Marlin as scheduled.

The story is well constructed in what we recognize today as vintage Block style. It has obvious historic value as being Block’s first published work. It also is a precursor of the great and prodigious work that has flowed from Block since.

Hard Case Crimes’ website is www.HardCaseCrime.com. At this site, readers can see what other offerings are currently available and can subscribe to Hard Case Crime’s monthly email newsletter to keep up to date on its offerings. If the four books reviewed here are any indication of the quality of the series’ publications, the reading public has much to look forward to.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 35 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Grifter's Game at Hard Case Crime



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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

Hard Case Crimes reprints:

Matthew Scudder Mysteries

Keller Series:

Bernie Rhodenbarr Mysteries (reprinted 2006)

Evan Tanner Mysteries (reprinted in 2007):

Writing as Paul Kavanagh

Nonfiction:

Movies from Books:

  • Nightmare Honeymoon (based on Deadly Honeymoon)
  • Eight Million Ways to Die (1985)
  • Burglar (loosely based on The Burglar in the Closet) (1987)
  • Keller (based on Hit Man)
  • A Walk Among the Tombstones

 

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Book Marks:

 

 

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About the Author:

Lawrence BlockLawrence Block was born in Buffalo, New York in 1938. He attended Antioch College in Ohio then went to work in the mailroom of a New York publisher. His first story was published in 1957 and since has written more than thirty novels and countless stories and articles, not just under his own name but also as Paul Kavanagh. Indeed Lawrence Block has had several pseudonyms having learned his writer's art crafting erotic literature as Andrew Shaw, Sheldon Lord and Jill Emerson.

His novels range from the urban noir of Matthew Scudder to the urbane effervescence of Bernie Rhodenbarr, while other characters include the globe-trotting insomniac Evan Tanner and the introspective assassin Keller (Hit List). He has published articles and short fiction in American Heritage, Redbook, Playboy, GQ, and The New York Times, and has published several collections of short fiction in book form, the most recent being his Collected Mystery Stories. Larry is a Grand Master of Mystery Writers of America. He has won the Edgar and Shamus awards four times and the Japanese Maltese Falcon award twice, as well as the Nero Wolfe award. In France, he has been proclaimed a Grand Maitre du Roman Noir and has twice been awarded the Societe 813 trophy. He has been a guest of honor at Bouchercon and at book fairs and mystery festivals in France, Australia, Italy, New Zealand and Spain, and, as if that were not enough, was presented with the key to the city of Muncie, Indiana. He is a past president of the Private Eye Writers of America and the Mystery Writers of America.

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