Friday, September 18, 2009

Lucky at Cards 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.

"They say every man has a weakness. They say that for every man there's a woman somewhere in the world who can make him jump through fiery hoops just by snapping her fingers. They say a man's lucky if he never meets that woman." — from Lucky at Cards

If your publishing imprint's best-selling novels were by a particular author, you'd keep putting out novels by that author, wouldn't you? Well, that must be what's going on over at Hard Case Crime, because Lucky at Cards is the third "lost" Lawrence Block classic they've come out with. Lucky for us, it's another doozy, but what else could you possibly expect from the master of the crime novel?

Bill Maynard is an ex-magician who found his way into the card-sharp business. He upset the wrong people in his last town, so he's moved temporarily to New York, following an opportunity. But he's about to get very distracted by another, much more unexpected, opportunity — one "with hooker's hips and queen-sized breasts," and one that's easily as dangerous as getting aces and eights.

Lucky at Cards was originally released under the title The Sex Shuffle and the byline "Sheldon Lord," and it was published in 1964, the year before The Girl with the Long Green Heart, Block's previous Hard Case Crime outing. It shares a more optimistic tone with that novel that is a far cry from the much darker Grifter's Game (a.k.a. Mona) from just a couple of years before. This is apparently a huge coup for the Hard Case gang as Block has been notoriously shy when it comes to his early pseudonymous novels.

Its brisk pacing is a big attraction, but Lawrence Block's forte has always been his wonderfully complex plots, especially in these early novels. The likable, relatable characters like Matthew Scudder and Bernie Rhodenbarr came later — guys like Bill Maynard in Lucky at Cards are just slightly nonaverage Joes with very healthy imaginations.

Hell, they think like novelists, with their convoluted scenarios involving multiple character roles and layers of deception requiring huge amounts of footwork and no discernible sleep. No real person could pull all this off. And while this may be a drawback for some readers, I get a lot of fun out of watching these unrealistic, but still somehow highly plausible, situations play out. As long as Hard Case Crime keeps discovering these gems, I'll keep reading them.

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