I was sixteen when I read my first Lawrence Block novel, A Ticket to the Boneyard (1990). I had been blazing through Robert Parker and John D. MacDonald, but Block was different, and I wasn't sure I liked that. The book seemed a bit too real, from the violence to the corrupt cops to protagonist Matthew Scudder's constant battle to stay away from alcohol. Unlike Spenser and Travis McGee, who, for all their quirks and flaws, are presented as heroes through-and-through, never in danger of failing any true test of character, Matthew Scudder always seemed--at least to me at sixteen--like a man on the brink. Pressed on all sides by a difficult and dangerous world, he really might some day see it all fall apart.
I couldn't put the book down, though, and I kept reading Block, going back and reading all the Matthew Scudder novels. The more I read--and the further I got from sixteen--the more I understood what Block was trying to do with Scudder's mix of strength and frailty. But I then went nearly fifteen years without reading any Lawrence Block; following an English degree with a couple of years working in a bookstore that had no mystery section caused me to forget all about him, along with a lot of other mystery writers. So I was pleased to find last week, on reading his 1964 novel Lucky at Cards, that he is as good as I remembered. I don't know if the Matthew Scudder novels would hold up to my teenage memories, but Lucky at Cards is really satisfying. It features a lot of good crime novel virtues: a compromised protagonist, a glimpse into the techniques of an illicit profession (in this case, that of a card "mechanic," or sharp), and a deceptively simple but pleasantly surprising plot.
Lucky at Cards also provides--simply by virtue of its age--a fascinating view of the mid-century old boy network in action (and of the world of male camaraderie that accompanied it), as the card mechanic infiltrates a group of business and professional friends who spend their weekends playing poker, drinking, and talking about investment syndicates. Because he has reasonable clothes, a convincing manner, and can play poker and say all the right things, it seems only natural for him to be invited to join their game, then their circle, then be set up with a job and a potential girlfriend. The webs of interconnection, the long-term plans seemingly being laid in quick-drying concrete, and the obvious group expectations all conspire to make the con man's whipsawing between disdain for and attraction to the straight life convincing, investing his tough decisions with the real uncertainty that's essential to a good crime novel.
On top of all that, Lucky at Cards has the best cover painting Hard Case Crime has commissioned yet. Now I'll have to pick up the other two Block novels that Hard Case has reprinted, which appear to have pretty great covers themselves.