Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Sharpies and frauds

A couple of weeks ago I proclaimed that Richard Aleas's Songs of Innocence (2007) is the best novel that Hard Case Crime has published. The next day my friend Ed from the Dizzies sent me a note saying, essentially, "Really? Lawrence Block's Grifter's Game and The Girl with the Long Green Heart would be hard to top." Uh-oh. There were, after all, five Hard Case Crime books that my subscription hadn't brought me--the Block novels among them. And it wasn't too long ago that Hard Case published a third Block novel, one that reminded me just how much I like his work. Perhaps I should have hedged.

Properly challenged, I ordered the pair from my local bookstore. And Ed's right about at least one thing: they're really good. Both novels feature a grifter looking for a score and falling for a woman (need I note the ensuing disastrous consequences?). But despite their superficial similarities, they're distinctly different in tone, and reading them back-to-back is like watching a master play variations on a theme.

The Girl with the Long Green Heart (1965) tells the story of Johnny Hayden, a retired con artist who is lured back for a sharply designed long con. (You can guess what separates a long con from a short con, but if you want more detail, two great sources are David Mauer's The Big Con and J. R. "The Yellow Kid" Weil's Con Man.) A con novel exists largely so us outsiders can watch a con come together, and Block delivers the goods: there's worthless land in Canada, a mooch who can be induced to smell unearned (and possibly illicit) profit, and a lovely lady to pull it all together. There are deeds to be forged, dummy letters to be mailed from various cities throughout the country, a storefront land office to be furnished and staffed--wheels within wheels, and everything has to work perfectly for the con to succeed, which is what we're rooting for the whole time, morality be damned. Block doesn't excuse our choosing the side of the cheats, but he makes it easier both by making the mark a boor and by reminding us:
There's an old maxim that you cannot swindle a completely honest man. I'm not sure this is entirely true--it would be hard to test it empirically, because I don't think I have ever met an entirely honest man.

Yet even as we're watching the pieces fall into place, we know the plan will fail somehow. You can't write a crime novel about a con that goes off flawlessly--as much fun as these schemes are to read about, it's not the anticipated complications but the dangerous surprises that create the tension and provide the drama. In this case, despite Johnny Hayden's disbelief in pure honesty, too much trust is what opens the door to disaster. To run a con, you've got to trust your partners--and sins of omission, however minor in themselves, can bring the whole game crashing down. And as good as the set-up is in The Girl with the Long Green Heart, the crash is just as impressive.

Grifter's Game (1961) opens as a similar sort of grifter, Joe Marlin, is trying to stay a few steps ahead of unpaid bills:
The lobby was air-conditioned and the carpet was the kind you sink down into and disappear in without leaving a trace. The bellhops moved silently and instantly and efficiently. The elevators started silently and stopped as silently, and the pretty girls who jockeyed them up and down did not chew gum until they were finished working for the day. The ceilings were high and the chandeliers that drooped from them were ornate.

And the manager's voice was pitched very low, his tone apologetic. But this didn't change what he had to say. He wanted the same thing they want in every stinking dive from Hackensack to Hong Kong. He wanted money.

To dodge the bill, Marlin flees to Atlantic City, where he quickly and unexpectedly finds himself a in possession of a big block of heroin--and lovely lady who wants her drug dealing husband dead. From there, events proceed roughly as you might expect. Marlin concocts a satisfyingly multi-layered plan for knocking off the woman's husband, complications ensue, and, almost to the end, Grifter's Game follows through on our expectations: there's love, money, and double crosses, all adding up to a solid, if unspectacular, crime novel.

Then the last ten pages change everything, with an ending that might be the most stunning I've read in a crime novel. Rather than wrap the book up conventionally, Block takes a real chance, and the close of the novel left me gape-mouthed. In writing about Richard Aleas's Songs of Innocence, I mentioned how unflinching Aleas was about the consequences of his book's events, how by playing everything straight he built up to a shocking ending; Block handles Grifter's Game the same way, to similarly powerful effect. The ending is brutal, astonishing, and totally unexpected--yet at the same time it feels completely right.

After all that, have I answered Ed's question? Is Songs of Innocence better than Grifter's Game? Maybe? Probably?

All I know is that even being neck-and-neck with Lawrence Block is something to be proud of--and that if you like crime novels, you might as well read both and make your own decision. Regardless of which you prefer, I don't think you'll regret it.

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