Book: Sinner Man
Author: Lawrence Block
Price: $9.95 (paperback) (also available in hardcover, e-book and audio)
Publisher: Hard Case Crime
Synopsis: To escape punishment for a murder he didn’t mean to commit, insurance man Don Barshter has to take on a new identity: Nathaniel Crowley, ferocious up-and-comer in the Buffalo, New York mob. But can he find safety in the skin of another man … a worse man … a sinner man?
My Rating: Four out of five stars
My Thoughts: The story behind the novel is as interesting as the novel itself: this was the first crime novel Block wrote. It was published under a pseudonym and then forgotten for fifty years. The author conducted an extensive search for the book he vaguely remembered writing but not publishing, and now that it’s found Hard Case Crime has brought it out in a handsome hardcover as well as affordable paperback and ebook editions.
It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Block’s work, whether he’s writing hard-boiled crime / noir, as here or the more cozy mysteries featuring Bernie Rhodenbarr or anything in between. This book has everything the fans of Block’s noir work have come to expect: a lead character you want to like but can’t approve of; a female lead who is more than capable of holding her own despite, or perhaps because of, the men who use her; and dialogue that’s rich in patter and short on soliloquies.
Also as expected of Block when he’s written full-on noir like this: the book gets off to a hot, fast start (with the accidental murder the synopsis describes), slows down for some character building in the middle (as Barshter/Crowley becomes a part of the mob scene), then punches into high gear in the final pages with an intensity that really leaves you wondering who, if anyone, will come out of this thing alive.
I’ll be clear: Donald Barshter isn’t likeable even before he accidentally murders his wife and decides to go on the run rather than face justice. He’s even less likeable as he worms his way into a situation in which the reader knows, if not Don/Nate himself, that he’s in over his head. But that doesn’t stop you from wanting to know how it all turns out, wanting to know if in fact the law from back home will catch up to our “sinner man” or not. There were a few times throughout the book when I thought “Block could end it here, and I’d be satisfied.” But the author teases out the exact moment the other shoe will drop several times, and never in exactly the same way — building the suspense to a low rolling boil.
This is one of Block’s books that I could easily see Alfred Hitchcock adapting back in the day, if he’d been aware of the story. I pictured Tippi Hedren as Anne several times while reading.
And of course, because it’s a Hard Case Crime book, there’s a cover by Michael Koelsch that would be equally at home on Double Indemnity.
I’m definitely glad this lost early novel of Block’s was found and brought back into print. It’s a fun, suspenseful ride even if you don’t like the main character.