Sinner Man by Lawrence Block
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Between this and Resume Speed I’ve read two Lawrence Block stories in the last week that were about men leaving town and taking on new identities. But even if Mr. Block had a dozen more books coming out soon about guys hopping busses and trains for further misadventures under fake names I’d still cheerfully read them.
Don Barshter is your run-of-the-mill insurance salesman in a small city in Connecticut, but he’s bored with his life and drinking too much. One night he tries to end an argument with his wife with a brisk slap, but the silly woman falls wrong and ends up dead. Don’s first instinct is to call the cops to turn himself in because it’s 1960 and accidently killing your wife during a fight isn’t that big of a deal, but then he decides to seize the chance to reinvent himself instead.
After stashing the body in a closet and emptying his bank accounts Don is off to exotic Buffalo under the name Nat Crowley, but what should a wife murdering insurance agent pick as a new career? Organized crime seems like a lucrative field with growth opportunities that won’t bother with a lot of background checks so he starts hanging out in bars and rubbing elbows with gangsters while beating up the occasional Canadian tourist to establish his credentials as a rough customer. Soon enough Nat is in with the local mob, but can he ever truly escape his past by engaging in even worse acts?
This is billed as Block’s first crime novel, and in an afterword he explains that while it’s actually the first one of the genre he wrote it wasn’t the first one he published. In fact, he tells a fascinating story about how it got lost in the shuffle of the various books he was churning out for the paperback publishers of the day under various pen names, and while he got paid for it he’d never gotten a copy and had only vague memories of the story. It was a chance conversation with some fans on Facebook that led to him finally learning the title and name it was released under.
It’s a testament to how much material Lawrence Block has written in his life that he has entire books that he thought were lost, but this isn’t just a gimmick trading off the idea that it’s a young Block’s first mystery novel. It’s an incredibly solid and fascinating piece of work that starts out as a plot driven story about how a guy could leave one life and start another on the run. Then it turns into a serious noir that has a lot to say about how you may be able to change your name, but you’re still gonna be stuck with what you’ve done and who you are.
Block also drew on his days as a soft core porn writer to incorporate some steamy sex scenes in the best tradition of the pulp paperbacks, but even those turn into something deeper and darker with Nat’s relationship to the gangster savvy Anne Bishop getting increasingly complicated as he works his way up the mob hierarchy.
Overall, it’s just a fantastic piece of pulp fiction that shows that even when he was starting out that Block was already a great writer. This is one of my new favorites from Hard Case Crime.
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