Underground Reading: The Girl with the Long Green Heart by Lawrence Block
Wednesday, May 15, 2013
This is the latest installment in our scheme to review each and every Hard Case Crime publication, one every week. You can follow along here.
Well, one week after my least favourite Hard Case Crime (so far), I get to review one of my favourites (so far) - Lawrence Block's The Girl with the Long Green Heart.
Originally published as a Gold Medal paperback in 1965, The Girl with the Long Green Heart was reprinted a few times - an Abebooks search finds it in 1985, 1994, 1999, 2005. And, having read it, with good cause. This is a brilliant stand-alone novel of a faded con man, a beautiful woman and one very, very complicated scheme.
Johnny Hayden is out of prison and living a good, clean life. He works at a bowling alley, saves every penny and takes correspondence courses in hotel management. There's a broken down roadhouse at the edge of town, and Hayden's got his eye on it. At the current rate he's saving money, he thinks he could purchase it in the next nine years. Maybe. A man needs a dream, else he can't get out of bed in the morning.
Enter: Doug Rance. Doug, like Johnny, is a con man - just not retired. Doug's particular art is the smile. Whereas Johnny is naturally trustworthy, Doug's unnaturally charming. Together, Doug suggests, they'd make an unstoppable team. And Doug's got the target for them already prpped - a wealthy (and greedy) small town millionaire named Gunderman. Johnny does his best to resist Doug's pitch but Doug uses the dream against him. Johnny could sweat out a decade in a bowling alley... or make thirty grand in one fell swoop.
The con itself is wonderfully tricky - Doug's set up a scheme that conveniently piggy-backs on an earlier con from a different group of criminals. There's land involved (in CANADA!) and exactly the right sort of hook to get Gunderman drooling. Doug and Johnny are going to pretend to be a land syndicate and bilk Gunderman of hundreds of thousands of dollars (cash). With Doug's prep work and Johnny's work ethic, it should be no problem at all.
Plus the two boys have an ace in the hole... Evelyn Stone, Gunderman's secretary. Evelyn's been more than Gunderman's workmate for the past few years (cough, nudge). She's tired of being used and she's out for revenge. Plus, as Johnny quickly learns, she's a natural at the game. With her on board, they know everything Gunderman's doing practically before he does... they can't fail.
Except, of course, they can. Johnny runs into a thousand little problems and challenges - The Girl with the Long Green Heart is a step-by-step guide through the haphazard life of the professional con man. Johnny (and Doug) are both spectacular, and it is easy to get swept up with their creativity and enthusiasm. It helps that Gunderman is pure sleaze... as Johnny points out, it isn't possible to con a selfless man, and Gunderman's no exception. It doesn't take long before the reader is cheering for Johnny and his 'dream'.
As a book about a con, The Girl with the Long Green Heart is already exceptional: a tricky, twisty plot that keeps the reader hooked from start to finish. But it is truly spectacular for two reasons: Johnny's dream and Evelyn Stone.
The first is the simplest to explain - especially if I'm going to avoid spoilers. Johnny is constantly balancing his fear (if he's caught, he's screwed for life) with his hope (if he makes it, he's achieving the dream). But the end of the book turns everything on its head. Mr. Block questions what success is - what a dream is. Does Johnny want to achieve or have achieved? What actually makes him happy? Given the events over the course of The Girl with the Long Green Heart, the book's ending is surprisingly, wonderfully uplifting. I won't spoil it, but Mr. Block matches the perfect twist with the ideal resolution.
The second reason The Girl with the Long Green Heart is one of the best Hard Case Crime novels: Evelyn Stone. Let's talk a bit about agency - or, better yet, let's let Elizabeth Bear do it for us:
Agency is when a character has an agenda, and is making attempts to complete that agenda. This is the so called try/fail cycle of the three act structure of genre fiction; when internalized, it’s the striving that drives literary fiction. It’s what the character wants, and what they need, and what they are willing to do to get it.
Ms. Bear goes on to point out how, especially in genre fiction, female characters with agency are often incorrectly confused with "kick-ass female heroines". A female character can be a gun-toting death ninja and still lack agency (see: the films of Zack Snyder, the comics of Mark Millar, the books of Terry Goodkind, etc. etc.) And the reverse is also true: a female character can have a goal and achieve it without ever being in the least bit "kick-ass".
Evelyn Stone is a stunning example of the latter. Superficially, she's all noir stereotype: a beautiful femme fatale with a grudge against Gunderman and a yen for handsome con men. But beneath that, The Girl with the Long Green Heart is all about her. Johnny, Douglas and Gunderman each have their own agendas, but they're essentially dictated by Evelyn. The realisation at the end of The Girl with the Long Green Heart is that Johnny's the wrong protagonist: his life has been changed by Evelyn, not the other way around. (It is important to note that this isn't because she's the 'big bad' or a witchy villainness, but simply because she has agency - more, in fact, than anyone else in the book.)*
A con is about control - control of the environment, control of the mark, control of every situation. Evelyn's control is, by far, supreme. Everyone is dancing to her tune; working to achieve her agenda. It is remarkable to find a book in any genre with a female character this developed - or with this much agency - and it is especially gratifying that there's such a great example in 1965 (or mortifying that there are so few examples since then...)
The Girl with the Long Green Heart is more than your typical con-based thriller - although it does have a terrifically complex scheme at its heart. The characters are spectacularly well-thought, the plot keeps the reader guessing and the ending is wonderfully, unpredictably right. The Girl with the Long Green Heart is a great Hard Case Crime and fantastic piece of writing.
Robert McGinnis is back for the cover art as well. Although I love his work, I'm not sure I'm quite the fan of this one. I like that Evelyn is front and centre. She's clothed, unafraid and in complete control of the situation - all fitting and apt (see above). That said, one of McGinnis' styles of woman (for lack of a better word) is a bit... elongated. Evelyn is looking a bit stretched. The pose of the 1965 cover is all wrong, but I like the way Evelyn looks more.
*Spoiler: in fact, the entire plot of The Girl with the Long Green Heart is essentially Evelyn's prolonged revenge on Gunderman because he (briefly) took her agency from her.