Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Grifter's Game by Lawrence Block (originally published as Mona) (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.

Joe Marlin spends his days skipping out on hotel bills and double-crossing gold-diggers; not the best of lives, but it works for him. One day, after lifting some luggage to check in to his next hotel with (if you go without, they pay closer attention), he discovers a large cache of heroin. Later that night, he meets the married Mona Brassard, and they get to know each other better.

Now, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that the heroin and the heroine are somehow connected, but Block keeps the pace of Grifter's Game moving so fast that it doesn't matter. Joe is quickly in love — and in over his head — and this portrait of love between the hardest of hearts can only end in disaster. We just don't know what form it will take — other than that mentioned in the tagline, of course. (I love those floating eyes in the cover illustration by Chuck Pyle, by the way.)

Grifter's Game was an excellent choice to inaugurate the new Hard Case Crime line. Since it comes from very near that period, the details are fresh and natural: phone exchanges that begin with words, Joe's lunch in an Automat, even the mention that "the elevator was self-service" plants us right in the middle of the time — and this was at the beginning of Block's career. (Marlin's skill with locks predicts Block's later Burglar series, and his Matthew Scudder is an example of what happens when genre-dictated drinking gets out-of-hand.)

Lawrence Block is one of my favorite authors for that skill with detail. His insertion of humor in the story as a necessary means to break the tension is another reason (Marlin's response to a juicer pitchman is priceless). But, in the end, what I like best about the author is his creativity. A book like this could have ended in any of a dozen ways, all of them somewhat predictable, but Block comes up with one that absolutely knocks you to the floor, turning Grifter's Game from a really good story into a surprising and terrific one.

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