Monday, August 8, 2011

Re-Kindling Interest: A Girl Called Honey, So Willing, and Sin Hellcat by Lawrence Block and Donald E. Westlake (early pseudonymous novels originally by "Sheldon Lord and Alan Marshall" and "Andrew Shaw")

This is one of a series of reviews focusing on out-of-print novels that have become available again via a variety of e-book formats.

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2010. Reprinted with permission.

Authors Lawrence Block and Donald E. Westlake met while both working for Harry Shorten at Midwood writing soft-core sex novels. Block was impressed by a line in one of Westlake's novels written as Alan Marshall, then Westlake overheard a conversation Block had with his agent. Later, they introduced themselves and were friends for fifty years, until Westlake's death at the end of 2008.

These three novels are the only ones Block and Westlake ever collaborated on, two under their respective pseudonyms for Midwood, Sheldon Lord and Alan Marshall, and one as Andrew Shaw. They discussed the prospect in later years of working together again (specifically a Bernie Rhodenbarr/John Dortmunder crossover), but alas, it never came to pass. Luckily, these books are now available for much cheaper than they could be found on the collectors' market.

A Girl Called Honey centers around the semi-innocent Honour Mercy Bane, whose parents kick her out on her sex-loving kiester, causing her to begin selling her ware in a brothel as "Honey." Richie Parsons is a petty thief in the Army who finds it difficult to keep his favorite hobby under wraps in a closely watched barracks.

Gone AWOL (he knows they can't get him for desertion if he keeps his uniform), he meets Honey and their relationship progresses from business to pleasure — until his fear of capture makes him more a liability than an asset, and another client tries to make his way into Honey's top spot. Then a single event has universally tragic consequences, with an ending easily as shocking as that of Block's later novel Mona (reprinted as Grifter's Game).

In So Willing, Vince is frustrated. He learned early on the skills to get a girl to go all the way, and he's decided to use them to bag his first virgin. But after numerous disappointing surprises, he discovers that you can't really tell a virgin from a more experienced girl. "Her own statements ... were worse than useless" and her actions, reputation, and appearance can also be misleading. So he decides to take a different approach and gets much more than he expected.

Sin Hellcat focuses on Harvey Christopher, husband to the frigid Helen and current paramour to Jodi, a working girl whom Harv went out with in college and who now makes a good living on her back. They "reminisce" for a while, getting reacquainted with each other's outer selves, until a business associate of Jodi's tries to blackmail Harvey, and Harvey responds in an unexpected way, inadvertently making him the ideal candidate for what comes next.

The three novels are all a lot of fun, especially when read with the knowledge that Block and Westlake alternated chapters. Block began A Girl Called Honey, Westlake began So Willing, and Block won't tell who wrote what in Sin Hellcat — since he was quite proud to discover that their styles mesh remarkably even now.

One gets the impression that the authors got a great deal of amusement from taking off on each other's plot twists and especially from getting rid of characters created by the other when they began to annoy. The books are full of little in-references (one character signs a hotel register as "Andrew Shaw") and throwaway jokes (like calling a town Modnoc; read it backwards) that only add to the entertainment. All in all, Block and Westlake have nothing to be ashamed of with these early novels, and their fans will be glad to see them back in print, if only so that they can generate royalty checks once again.

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