Monday, September 7, 2009

The Girl with the Long Green Heart by Lawrence Block (Hard Case Crime)

Since September 2009 marks the fifth anniversary of Hard Case Crime, I will be reprinting my reviews of the first 40 books from my old (and now mostly defunct) Craig's Book Club site — 2 for the first 10 days, and 1 a day for the next 20. I hope you enjoy this refresher course in the variety of crime fiction that this fascinating publisher has to offer.

It was a crime novel from Lawrence Block that initiated the Hard Case Crime line (a new imprint from Dorchester Publications and Winterfall LLC that focuses on books written in the style of the old pulp crime novels) in 2004, and Grifter's Game was a nearly perfect choice. It set the tone for works to come while making a terrific impression on its own terms.

Now Ardai and company have returned with another fantastic Block reprint, again with a grifting theme. I love a good long-con tale, and The Girl with the Long Green Heart is one of the best. In terms of pure entertainment value (and educational value, if you're an aspiring criminal like me), it belongs side-by-side with The Sting.

The title character is Evvie Stone, secretary (among other things) to millionaire Wallace J. Gunderman. He promised to marry Evvie a long time ago, but never came through with the ring. However, that hasn't stopped him from getting his milk for free, so to speak, and Evvie is primed for revenge.

Enter Doug Rance and John Hayden, a couple of long-time con artists who work terrifically together due to their complementary styles. They've hatched an ingenious plan guaranteed to relieve Gunderman of a hundred thousand of his precious dollars, and Evvie couldn't be more eager to help them out from the inside. But is she too eager?

Block devises a con so well, it makes you wonder if he hasn't been involved in a little "research" himself (in addition to his lock-picking expertise as shown in his Bernie Rhodenbarr series). The author has a way with words unlike any other author. Written in the first person, The Girl with the Long Green Heart has a lot of internal monologue from John's point-of-view. Much of it has to do with the planning of the job, but a preponderence is simply one man's thoughts when thrust into a set of situations he did not plan on, and Block manages to somehow make it all utterly riveting.

In which case, The Girl with the Long Green Heart reads like lightning — I was finished before I realized I was over halfway through. And it's that kind of readability that brings me back to Block (and Hard Case Crime) time and time again, whatever the book. He's not always the most original plotter (his Rhodenbarrs owe a huge debt to Agatha Christie and his Chip Harrison "mysteries" are just softcore Nero Wolfe rip-offs), but his distinctive voice ensures familiarity and his pure skill at storytelling promises a fun read every time — the primary reason why he is one of my favorite authors.

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