For the most part, reading the early books of famed crime writer Lawrence Block have been low-risk, entertaining tasks. I often see prototypes of characters later written into the Matthew Scudder series, but the plots have been consistently clear and settings evocative. Published inside pulp periodicals or as dime paperbacks, these were meant to be easily read and quickly digested. Hard Case Crime has been bringing several of them back into print, with original cover art.
A Diet of Treacle (1961) is a bit of curveball by the early Block, with some insights on the drug-loving counterculture and a relatively slow pace in the action. The title comes from a quote inside Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, referencing an illness shared by animals living at the bottom of a well, sustained by a diet of treacle (syrup). The treacle here, of course, is the drug-soaked “drop-out” lifestyle of Greenwich hipsters.
ADoT features three principal characters with an uneven quality (listed here, from worst to best):
- Shank is a small-time drug dealer who transitions from marijuana to heroin, once a gap in the local distribution channel opens up. His plans are spelled out in the simplest of terms, and he seems to be easy prey for a detective that tracks him. He does possess a little cunning and a long knife, which puts him at an advantage to the other characters. He is the obvious villain in the tale, and unfortunately Block narrates some of the story from inside his brain – it’s not a particularly enjoyable experience, given how unequivocally evil Shank is.
- Joe is a burned-out army veteran who starts the book marking time in a Village cafe. He spots Anita (the shocked woman in the great Pyle cover) and draws her into his life – knowing that he’s not that good for her – and slow-burning struggle between the amoral and purposeful life. At first, we see Joe as a kind of a hopeless case, but eventually his feelings for Anita begins to change him. Joe is there for the boring “beat” poetry in the cafe, and for the inane pot-centered conversation at a party; as eyes and ears he’s worth something.
- Anita, as hinted by the Lewis Carroll reference, is the true protagonist. She takes the long subway ride from her conservative Italian-American family (not to mention an engagement) into this “Wonderland” of hipsters and drugs. Her naiveté through most of the story is at many times painful, but she is by far the most relatable figure in the story. She lets Joe talk her into moving into his grimy room, sampling his drugs and joining his parties, experiences that bring about some measure of self-actualization. Unfortunately, her proximity to Shank leads to horrible experiences, including assault and rape. If her entire role in the story was sex-object and victim, then perhaps its most logical incarnation was the original Pads are for Passion sleaze paperback. Fortunately, there’s more to Anita than this, even as she parties too hard and makes that fateful return trip to the Village – we see her choices before, during and after they happen from her point of view. These choices are mostly bad, but Block asks whether she was put into this path by an over-protective traditional upbringing.
The midway point of ADoT is marked by a deadly confrontation between a city detective and the trio, which is evoked in the Chuck Pyle cover. I found the ensuing run from the murder scene an easy read, with some suspense in it. For me it’s the weaker half of the book, however, mainly because Anita and Joe are mostly spectators to the action. It seems like Block stopped struggling with making a deeper morality tale and played out the string with rather familiar plot events. It’s hard to see ADoT as fully satisfying to most readers, since the two halves seems to be trying to do different things. Block does successfully make a book out of it here, but its simplicity and uneven pacing leaves it short of his Scudder masterpieces, such as Eight Million Ways to Die or When the Sacred Ginmill Closes.
ADoT features Block’s favorite setting (lower Manhattan), his talent for constructing a compelling female character and one of my favorite themes of literature (drugs). It’s still kind of rough with respect to how (and why, frankly) the violence happens, but I put it on the better end of Block’s early novels. 6/10.
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