Review: Sinner Man by Lawrence Block

Sinner Man by Lawrence Block is the legend's first ever crime novel—lost for over 50 years but now available from Hard Case Crime!

Whenever I get a new Lawrence Block novel from Hard Case Crime, I pour a Sam Adams and set two plus hours aside because I’m aware from experience that the read will be a careening roller coaster ride to the climax. His latest pulp fiction blast, Sinner Man—as you can imagine—was no exception and has some interesting backstory: it’s Mr. Block’s first ever crime novel, and it was “lost” for almost half a century until the author asked his loyal fan base if anyone happened to have a copy. Lucky for us, the answer was yes. Thanks to Facebook (the social networking site does serve a useful function after all), we now get to rediscover Lawrence Block the younger, already possessing his bag of gritty tough prose.

No response. I noted the trickle of blood from her temple, the angle of her head where it met the surround of the fieldstone fireplace.

I stood there, waiting for someone to run the film backward, waiting for her to rise up from the carpet, waiting for my hand to draw back from her face, to delete the blow that had sent her stumbling and falling and cracking her head on the stone with a sound that still echoed through the room. 

Waiting for the past five minutes to erase themselves.

Insurance salesman Don Barshter has accidentally killed his wife, Ellen, after a routine spat over his drinking habit. He contemplates turning himself in, calculating what the punishment would be in his case. What would become of the life he has led to this point in his thirty-two years? Concluding he would be professionally ruined, he thinks, “Well, to hell with him. I still had a chance.” 

Withdrawing most of his savings, he settles on Buffalo, New York for shedding his skin and becoming Nat Crowley. He has an interesting approach that I’m not sure was all that plausible, even when it was originally written. However, in Mr. Block’s hands, you will hardly notice. And get this: instead of plastic surgery or any other such disguise, Don—now Nat—has decided to change who he is on the inside and radiate a new aura that’s basically summed up as, “I don’t give a crap.” At the most, he wears a hat and new threads to back that attitude. 

Oh, and the reason is because he has decided to join the mob since they won’t be too picky with background checks, which is handy for his George Raft behavioral change. To that end, he picks a fight with a barfly at a local bar, smacking the man down and tossing money the poor slob’s way to pay for the suit Nat messed up—you know, like a real mobster would do. He’s beginning to develop a rep that’s abated by dirty cops who rough him up for “mopery with intent to gawk,” they facetiously intone.

That pretty much does the trick. Almost immediately, he’s being taken for a ride to visit a Lou Baron, who gives him a job running another bar in town called the Round Seven, which is a front for the sole purpose of tax loss and, on occasion, a handy place for meetings.

Nat learns that an upper echelon thug in Baron’s outfit named Tony Quince helped him land his job when he observed him pound the barfly, and he hints at being properly compensated. Tony peels back the sticky face of the Buffalo underworld, explaining that Baron’s days are numbered and, when the time comes, Nat could be useful for whatever Tony’s plans may be.

The wheel starts turning a lot faster than even Tony could have predicted when Baron requests Nat to go to Philly to whack somebody—which, for a guy who was selling life policies a few weeks before, is difficult to stomach. He reluctantly says yes but blabs to Tony, who reveals that Philly never requested such a hit. Nat needs to decide which side he is going to play for now. He leaves Tony and, nice touch, the audience hanging as he heads for Philadelphia and his next move.

Getting over his wife was relatively easy. There’s a chambermaid he’s dallying with when she makes up his room, and he’s also become involved with Anne Bishop, a jazz club fixture who’s familiar with the seedier side of Buffalo. Claiming to be a good girl inside, she allegedly longs for a simpler life in a simpler community.

I remembered ugly houses set row on row, like crosses in Flanders Field. They all looked different, with different paint jobs and different landscaping—but they also all looked the same. 

“In a suburb,” she said. “In a fifteen-thousand-dollar split-level trap with a husband in my pocket and a baby in my uterus. Picture this. The husband works for a big company. His salary isn’t too great but they have a dandy pension plan. I have charge accounts and heavy furniture and a washing machine. And my bridge game is lousy but it’s something to do while you trade platitudes.”

It sounded familiar, I thought. It was Donald Barschter’s life.

I kept imagining actors Raft, Paul Muni, or John Garfield in the role of Donald Barschter/Nat Crowley. Though Sinner Man was written in the 1960s, it has a stark, hardboiled homage throwback to an earlier generation when characters rose from humble beginnings to the top of the criminal food chain, where they enjoyed the briefest of stays until their moral reckoning brought them back down to handcuffs or the morgue to satisfy the Hay’s Office. Speaking of different eras, anytime a character ducks into a payphone instead of reaching for a cell phone, I’m instantly reminded we’re in an old-fashioned setting. Otherwise, Sinner Man feels quite contemporary.

For a writer approaching his eighth decade, Mr. Block thankfully shows no sign of slowing down. And big props to Charles Ardai’s Hard Case Crime for mining these past gold veins. Sinner Man—originally titled Savage Lover—joins other HCC releases like The Girl with the Deep Blue Eyes, Borderline, Getting Off, and Killing Castro, complementing Mr. Block’s burgeoned legacy. It’s a damn fine crime novel that pairs perfectly with a Sam Adams, or whatever your preferred libation.


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David Cranmer is the publisher and editor of BEAT to a PULP. Latest books from this indie powerhouse include the alternate history novella Leviathan and sci-fi adventure Pale Mars. David lives in New York with his wife and daughter.


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