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Underground Reading: Grifter's Game by Lawrence Block

This is the first in a read of all the Hard Case Crime novels. In order (mostly), one each week (generally). You can follow along here.

Grifter's GameGrifter's Game by Lawrence Block couldn't be a more fitting start to the Hard Case Crime series. Joe Marlin is our protagonist - a smooth con man ready for his next score.

But Joe's no hero - not even a tarnished white knight a la Travis McGee. He's a penny-ante grifter, moving from one city to the next, looking for a rich widow to set up with before his looks fade. In Atlantic City, however, he hits the jackpot - twice. The casual theft of some expensive luggage (another one of Joe's rules - never check in without luggage or with cheap bags) turns up "sixty cubic inches of raw heroin". And a casual afternoon sunning himself on the beach turns up a bored young woman with a "very good body" and "ravenous mouth". Success. On multiple fronts.

Joe attempts a casual dalliance with Mona (that's the name behind the mouth), but things get complicated (crime fiction in a nutshell). Mona's husband is the luggage's original owner and, worse yet, Mona and Joe are falling in love. No matter how Joe looks at it, this con artist may have to take up murder...

As mentioned previously, the three titles of Grifter's Game each highlight a different facet of the book. Grifter's Game makes this about the game - the cut and thrust of the clever con. Every character in the book - Joe, Mona, Mona's heroin-importing husband - has their own angle, and Grifter's Game is the play-by-play as they all come together. Joe's great both as a conman and a narrator because he looks for these angles: he recognises the motivations of bellhops and mobsters alike, and adapts accordingly.

Sweet Slow Death is a beautiful interpretation - straight out of the grimdark thrillers of the mid-to-late 1980's.1 There are two sweet slow deaths on offer. To steal a line from the excellent review over at Vintage Sleaze Paperbacks: "the heroin and the heroine". The drug itself is always more than a million-dollar McGuffin. For one, Joe wants none of it - his goal is never to sell the drug, it is to avoid being caught with it. There's nothing in it for him but danger. But, almost incidentally, he keeps rubbing against the drug trade - first with the lucky strike of heroin, then in examining Mona's husband, finally in negotations with dealers in Nevada. Whether it is as a user or a peddler, drugs are a 'sweet slow death' - an ostensibly pleasant, completely lethal inevitability. 

But that same sequence - lucky strike / husband / Nevada - also outlines Joe's relationship with Mona. To put it simply: she's his drug. He meets her through sheer dumb luck, he becomes obsessed with her husband and he follows her across the country. At the beginning, Joe, ever the grifter, is suspicious, but as he grows more and more fond with Mona, his guard drops. His love for her is his own 'sweet slow death': a recognition that he's leaving his old life behind.

Block MonaAnd, for that reason (and others), Mona (1961) seems the most appropriate of all the titles. Only where Mona is concerned does Joe ever lose his cool. He's a clever, sharp man, but Mona insinuates herself into his life and Joe's routine, once-polished, begins to falter. For the most part, this is the book's strength: watching Joe unravel for the best (and worst) or reasons. It is also the book's weakness - for Mona to be so influential, she needs to be a powerful character, but the reader only ever sees her through Joe's eyes... and they're generally staring at her breasts. Mona and Joe's relationship is almost purely sexual, and it is difficult to believe that a hardened ex-gigolo like Joe could ever mistake that for love.

The sex in Grifter's Game is probably a result of its origins - Mona was actually the first Gold Medal published under Block's own name, and marks a transition of sorts, from pen names and 'sleaze' to publishing mysteries under his own name. (Not a clean transition - no pun intended - as Mr. Block continued to write across genres through the 1970s and beyond, and still uses pseudonyms through the current day.)3 Grifter's Game is unapologetically sexy - most of the relationships in the book are quickly recognised at that level, and Joe immediately defaults to sex as his stock in trade. Still, given Mona's importance to Joe, and her impact on his character arc, I would've preferred to have some additional foundation to their relationship.

The blurb on Grifter's Game from Stephen King describes Mr. Block as "the one writer who comes close to replacing the irreplaceable John D. MacDonald". I agree with the sentiment (and that's high praise), but Grifter's Game is much more evocative of a different irreplaceable author: Jim Thompson.4 Especially The Getaway (1958), which also combines sexual tension and competing schemes with a karmically appropriate and deeply upsetting ending. 

Both as a statement of intent and a great work in its own right, Grifter's Game is an exceptional start to the Hard Case Crime series.


1:Fantasy fans concerned about the dark twist their genre is taking should take a deep breath and wait five years. This too shall pass.2

2:It is hard to find a better barometer for publishing trends in crime fiction than Ed McBain's 87th Precinct series. For fifty years, McBain either led or closely followed the dominant, contemporary mystery paradigm. And in 1986, we're post-Lightning (1984) and into Poison (1987) - dark, sexual, corrupt and ruthless. Sweet Slow Death would've fit right in. 

3: Arguably Block's writing hits its inevitable synthesis with Getting Off (2011), but we'll get there.

4: For one, JDM is never deeply respectful of sex and, arguably, a little scared of it. For characters like Travis McGee, sex is magical therapy, akin to a unicorn horn - never something to be taken lightly. Even in his 'adultery fiction', MacDonald regards sex with a certain sort of awe. Block's characters use sex, MacDonald's put it on a pedestal.