Lawrence Block,
Sinner Man
(Hard Case Crime, 2016)

Sinner Man is Lawrence Block's first crime novel, originally written in the summer of 1957 and published eight years later, after which it promptly disappeared and was not seen again for close to 50 years. It was not Block's first book, not by a long shot, and that fact is a big factor in its disappearance; at the time, Block was writing mostly soft-core sex books -- by today's standards, very soft-core indeed -- for a group of paperback publishers, averaging two books a month for a flat fee per title.

When you've written maybe a hundred books, it's not hard to lose track of one. This one wound up being issued by a different, smaller publisher with a different title and a different byline, one that was used by several different writers. As his afterword indicates, Block only learned all of this decades later, when Hard Case Crime, who, like everyone in mystery and suspense publishing, had heard of the book but had never seen it. Block tracked it down -- the afterword tells how he did it, and here it is.

So, is the result worth the search?

Sinner Man is a transition book. Since Block was making his living writing sex books at the time, there's a great deal of sex in this one, but it takes place against a background of organized crime in the author's hometown of Buffalo, New York.

The plot? During an argument, Westchester insurance man Don Barshter impulsively hits his wife. The blow is fatal. Not wanting to serve a term for manslaughter and have his life ruined, Barshter goes on the run, choosing to remake himself as a criminal in Buffalo. All he really wants is a minor slot in the rackets, a place where he can be anonymous, but he turns out to be good at this big-time crime stuff and rises in the rackets to a position of power.

So we have an existential question: Is our protagonist really Don Barshter or is Nat Crowley, his assumed gang identity, closer to his essential self?

We also have the question of how his past and present will conspire to screw up his future.

In one of his writing texts, Block has pointed out that many readers care about nothing but story. It is why we accept cardboard characters, stereotypes, worn-out formulas and so on. Even when he was cranking out a couple of books a month under a series of pseudonyms, he created compelling, original characters who had motivation, drive and growth. His plots are original and unusual -- you don't often find insurance men hiding out as mobsters, but Block makes it work; in his hands, it becomes logical and believable.

Is Sinner Man worth the effort it took to track it down, find it and republish it?

Let's put it this way: If Lawrence Block wrote it, you can read it with pleasure.

book review by
Michael Scott Cain

24 September 2016

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