Tuesday, March 5, 2013

One Night Stands and Lost Weekends: Early Stories by Lawrence Block (short stories and novellas)

May you, Dear Reader, like the tomcat who had the affair with the skunk, enjoy these stories as much as you can stand.
—Lawrence Block, from the introduction
In 1999, publisher Crippen & Landru released limited hardcover editions of the early short fiction of author Lawrence Block.  The short-story volume was entitled One Night Stands, and the novella collection was called The Lost Cases of Ed London.

Now, these two volumes have been combined into a single trade paperback with the provocative title One Night Stands and Lost Weekends. The title describes the average time it took to write the short stories and novellas, respectively.

Block begins One Night Stands and Lost Weekends with a self-deprecatingly humorous introduction where he tells why he changed his mind regarding his original decision — set down in the introduction (also included) to the preceding limited collectors' edition — to only release the stories to a limited audience. Basically that, upon reading the stories, no one called "rip off," so why not make a little more money off them?

While these stories obviously aren't to the level of Block's later work (a point he emphasizes in both introductions, practically going so far as to warn the reader away from them), they will still appeal to the author's fans.  His voice is already clear, and the humor and imagination glosses over any imperfections in craft.

Con man Dick Barron runs across an amateur playing "The Badger Game" — badly — and decides to go along with it and turn the tables, though he's a little too arrogant for his own good. Before reading this story, I had not heard of this con, and now references to it seem to keep popping up. Apparently it was a popular plot device during the period. The story is definitely of its time — the narrator speaks of "expensive" thirty-dollar shoes — but Block's skill at character makes this one of special appeal to fans of confidence tales like his The Girl with the Long Green Heart.

"The Bad Night" is a simple and unsurprising standoff between two young killers and their much older potential victim. The use of setting and dialogue goes a long way toward saving this one. "Bargain in Blood," originally published under the "Sheldon Lord" byline, has a simple message: the next time your other half wants you to prove your love, just hope she's not Rita. Block manages to put off the surprise nearly to the end here.

"Bride of Violence" is a very well executed piece of pure crime fiction with a twist that, if hard to condone, is completely the result of the actions of the story. "The Burning Fury" is another one of those stories of people who can't leave well enough alone.  Block's characterization is stunning, giving all the right information and still holding back a surprise.

Characterization is everything in "The Dope," since there's very little in the way of plot.  "A Fire in the Night" is an internal monologue of sorts with a twist that negates several factual statements from the story.  "Frozen Stiff" owes a debt to Roald Dahl, as the irony flows. (A nod to the master is given in the form of a leg of lamb.)  Another Sheldon Lord, "Just Window Shopping," shows remarkable insight into the mind of a voyeur who gets a surprise opportunity.

A quote usually misattributed to Confucius says that if rape is inevitable, just "Lie Back and Enjoy It." But then the tables are turned a little too cutely in this tale from 1958. (Read it online.)  "Look Death in the Eye" is reminiscent of Robert Bloch with its darkly funny and humorously gruesome Tales from the Crypt–style ending.  In "Man of Passion," a photographer on the run picks the wrong town to hide out in.

"Nor Iron Bars a Cage" is one of those tales where you just know there's going to be a twist that the whole story was conceived around, but still Block manages to surprise with his only attempt at science fiction. "Package Deal" concerns town tamer Lou Baron, Joe Milani, Albert Hallander, Mike Ross, Arlington Ohio, and a hit man with his own agenda.

A particular highlight is "Pseudo Identity." It is the tragic tale of a double life that goes awry when the two overlap in an unexpected way.  Block pulls us along a surprising route that ends in a karmic twist.  This is one of his best all around.

"Ride the White Horse" is a very dark tale of how one man's life changes for the better — and then for the worse — when his routine is disrupted. A little naive in its drug knowledge but very astute in drawing the primary relationship.  The overblown ending is the only real detriment.

Even after having so many twists and turns thrown at me, Block still managed to get another one right past me in "The Way to Power," a tale of a mob gunman who finally begins to think for himself.  Lenny Blake (not his real name), the protagonist of "You Can't Lose," offers advice for smart guys who don't like to work but like to stay flush with cash--as long as they're not into luxury.

The "Lost Weekends" portion contains three novellas featuring Block's first series P.I., Ed London.  The introduction to this volume is similar to the other.  In "The Naked and the Deadly," London meets his client's blackmailer, and on the way to do business the extortionist is mowed down by a Tommy gun.

Ed then fills us in on the backstory: he was hired by a secretive woman, a lawyer is looking for the woman, a cop is looking for the lawyer, and things go from there.  The novella gives London (and Block) the chance to ramble on a bit and impress us with his esoteric knowledge.

In "Stag Party Girl," the title character jumps out of a cake at a bachelor dinner and gets shot for her trouble. She'd been intimate with most of the attendees and was potentially blackmailing one or more.  This is an improvement on "The Naked and the Deadly," with London seeming to take his job more seriously.

Finally, in "Twin Call Girls," Ed gets an urgent call from a frightened woman.  But when he gets to the meeting he finds her dead.  When the girl subsequently turns up alive at his office, it's not hard to figure out what's going on.  (The title gives it away.) This is the darkest of the three, with Block delving into some of the seediest aspects of humanity, but always with enough heart to make it palatable.

Reading these solid detective novelettes, it's easy to see how Block would progress to his later detective series.  And readers hungry for more Ed London can find him in Coward's Kiss.

Readers seeking classic Block should keep searching. But I heartily recommend that readers of Block's Hard Case Crime reprints get a copy of One Night Stands and Lost Weekends.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Craig--I am trying to find out how to e-mail you to ask whether you are interested in a review copy of a new western mystery of mine. I hope to hear from you. Best wishes, John D. Nesbitt

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