Sex-bomb manipulates player into offing her money-bags husband but the person really pulling the strings is the author. This starts off in familiar waters but Block’s plot turns are, as usual, quite delicious and the narrative ends up going to some surprisingly nihilistic places
This short novel is about dependency in all its forms and it must have been a right old shocker in 1960. Frankly, it features scenes that wouldn’t be out of place in the latest series of ‘True Detective’. Twenty-something Joe Marlin is a drifter, a non-payer of hotel bills, a seducer of women, a gigolo. Think the Steve Martin character in ‘Dirty Rotten Scoundrels’ minus the laffs. There’s certainly a vicarious thrill to be had in telepathising yourself into a life that thumbs its nose at any rule or hotel bill but you soon start looking to see where the royal kick in the arse that Joe deserves is going to come from. Enter Mona Brassard. Yes, she’s the world’s greatest piece of eye-candy – these types always have to be to galvanise their man into murderous action and for him to get jolly pissed when things don’t go his way – but she’s also front and centre in coincidences which both the observant reader and the author know are all too convenient. ‘Grifter’s Game’ is self-aware, Joe is too, and Block is fleet of foot in leveraging this for plot goodness. There are three delicious plot turns in the first 30 pages and 55 years later the great man is still at it in 2015’s ‘The Girl With The Deep Blue Eyes’. When the first twist happens you want to hug Block as you hunker down in your reading chair, knowing you’re in good authorial hands.
The novel jettisons the grifter angle fairly early on and proceeds through Joe’s shabby little plan, the bang-bang itself, and then the wheels inevitably coming off as the dratted dame starts stirring the pot. Mona, however, is not quite outed as some great eminence grise and nor does Joe get left in the gutter as she jets it off to Monaco, leaving him and us to reflect wryly on the absurdity of existence. Oh no. This is Lawrence Block we’re talking about, a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America . Fiend Block even dangles escape in the form of Nan Hickman in front of Joe and there is no reader who won’t be yelling at Joe to take what money he has and clear out to a life with her. Joe has every opportunity to walk away from this road show and that he doesn’t is the killing blow. That’s why the novel ends with him (beyond contempt, by the way, for what he does to Mona) contemplating a life down the drain for himself. Joe is despicable but Block lets us know – not that we need telling – that it’s the self-loathing that will do for him in the end.
I think there’s a case to be made for an edition of ‘The Quotable Block’, there are pull-out lines dotted all the way through this: “I thought like clocks tick”, “I drank bourbon and thought about murder”, “Eve learned that one the day they got dressed and moved out of Eden”. Mid twentieth-century man-fic still works like gangbusters because as in Shakespeare (‘Macbeth’ gets a name check in ‘Grifter’) we get to live for a while in the shoes of naughty people doing naughty things, satisfying our schoolboy ids, before sentence is imposed, usually by the Universe, thereby appeasing our nobler, censorious, selves. All done in prose that sings. These days ‘Grifter’ would make for a fine one episode vacation from the main proceedings of a hit show, something like the Jesse and Jane narrative in ‘Breaking Bad’. Wait a minute. Lawrence Block writing for ‘Breaking Bad’? Now there’s an idea…