Thursday, March 9, 2017


"I was hell in a short-brimmed hat."

I got home from working at SXSW the other day with plenty of time to do things that needed to be done before dinner.  Go to the gym. Take out the trash and recycling. Empty the dishwasher. I did none of those. Why? Because this guy Lawrence Block had me by the throat.

I had about fifty pages left to read in SINNER MAN (2016), and I decided that all those other things could wait. I was going to finish this book in one sitting. Finish I did and wow, what a ride! SINNER MAN, published last year by Hard Case Crime (my favorite contemporary book publisher), is Grand Master mystery writer Lawrence Block's long lost first crime novel.
 Block wrote the novel in 1959-60. The manuscript bounced around various paperback houses before finally being published as SAVAGE LOVER by "Sheldon Lord" in 1968. This is the first time in almost fifty years that the novel has been released under it's original title and with Block's name on it.

SINNER MAN is the story of Connecticut insurance salesman Donald Barshter who kills his wife by accident one night while more than slightly inebriated. Rather than go to the cops (a common first mistake in noir and one that will always lead to certain doom), Barshter stuffs his wife's corpse in a closet, cashes out his savings and takes a train to Buffalo. Once there, he adopts the identity of Nathaniel Crowley and tries to pass himself off as a small time hood.

The ruse works and before long, Crowley finds himself mobbed-up with a local crime family. But things take a turn for the worse when Crowley is asked to become a hit man. He does so and becomes involved in a bloody mob coup that leaves him with a high rank in the new organization that takes over.

Crowley also has a love-hate relationship with Anne Bishop. Their sex is more like rape and Anne grows to despise Crowley and plots to do him in. She digs deep and uncovers the truth about him and when she confronts Crowley with what she's discovered, something must be done. Hey, that liquor bottle makes a nice bludgeon.

SINNER MAN is fast, tough, hard boiled and stripped to the bone. The narrative is swift and sure, the sex and violence brutal. It's a portrait of a man discovering his true, inner self through a vicious masquerade. Barshter/Crowley has more blood on his hands than he can ever wash off and the novel ends with him on the run again. But for how long?

I tore through this one and it was worth giving up "gotta do" chores for this "gotta finish reading" page turner. Block was very good very early in his career and he's only gotten better over the decades. Highly recommended.

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