The last book I reviewed reached a sort of philosophical climax when the two major protagonists, father and son, confronted each other about their willingness, as Emperors of their people, to commit evil acts in service of the greater good. The father claimed that he only knew that his actions had evil outcomes after the fact, and the son countered that he was therefore the stronger leader, capable of judging between evil outcomes before taking action. It was not a dispute over foresight (which they both had), but over their respective understanding of what evil really is and where it originates.
Lawrence Block’s 1960 novel Sinner Man, lost for decades before its reprinting by Hard Case Crime, is a much simpler story, penned to get the author a first foothold in the crime fiction market. Almost certainly, it is not a careful meditation on the nature of evil. It is a tale of a man who flees the consequences of a criminal act, and becomes increasingly corrupt as a consequence. Other self-interested characters get caught up in his plight, and suffer dire consequences. Block was probably just writing to his market (this book was first published as a sleaze title called Savage Lovers), but it’s hard to overlook the rigid moral code at work here.
Insurance agent and alcoholic Don Barshter has just killed his wife Ellen. She’s dead after hitting her head against a fireplace, after Don punched her for asking the question: “Haven’t you had enough to drink?” Maybe it was her tone of voice.
Don offers us an incomplete picture of what happened, partially because hard liquor prevents him from knowing just how hard he stuck Ellen, and partially because he has already begun to lie to himself. This combination of intoxication, questionable memory and a dead woman opens another Block novel, After the First Death. It’s not the act of killing that interests Block, but the story he is able to construct out of the killer’s desperate escape.
Instead of calling the police and turning himself in, an act which would have let to a probable manslaughter conviction and end of his respectability, Don hesitates. He pushes the corpse into a closet and spends the next several hours thinking over his situation. Actually, he does less thinking than stalling, until he concludes that his predicament has changed:
The killing had stopped being a manslaughter the minute I decided not to call the police, the minute I decided not to go to court or to jail. I couldn’t plead for gentle justice anymore. I couldn’t get caught at all.
Taking this at face value (something Block seems to always allow us to do in his novels), Don has tried to do the right thing, but his sense of self-preservation is too great. By the ancient moral framework described by Kant,* this is the least severe grade of evil, a frailty manifested by fear. Kant’s system is famously rigid, defining as evil any actions not performed for moral reasons, and there may be better (but less famous) alternatives out there.
However, he quickly finds reason not just to escape responsibility, but to leave his identity. This new person, who looks exactly like Don but dresses and acts like a movie gangster, would not be obligated to face the sin of Ellen’s killing at all. And even if he did, he would not have any guilt about it, only the obligation to flee culpability.
Thus, Nathaniel Crowley is born. Like all Block stories, Sinner Man begins in Manhattan, and Crowley takes the train to Buffalo, where he believes he can get away with his act. He replaces his clothes and adopted different mannerisms, jettisoning careful money management and eyeglasses as mementos of a past life.
When she was dressed and ready to go I grinned at her and gave her the fifty-dollar bill and an extra twenty. “For being so good,” I told her.
Brenda paused at the door. “I make this room up the same time every day,” she said.
“I’ll remember that.”
Besides Brenda, Crowley also meets up with – and has several graphic sexual encounters with – a local woman named Anne Bishop. Anne lives in downtown Buffalo and frequents the rougher end of the entertainment district. We learn some of her story bit by bit: she abandoned a comfortable but very limited life in the suburbs through divorce, and she holds on to her independence by paying the price of safety and luxury. She follows through on her interest in Crowley, despite her suspicions of his vague back-story, by connecting him with the local mobsters.
The story develops along some familiar lines. Crowley’s new persona works well for him as he infiltrates the Buffalo mob, taking part in a violent coup because choosing the winning side is easy for him. Everyone who spends time with him, including Anne, catches on that he’s hiding from the law somewhere; their instinct is to let him continue being Crowley because it would buy them his loyalty. This backfires on the mob boss, some of his henchmen, and eventually, Anne — they all receive their due punishment for ignoring the law.
The machinery of justice at work in Sinner Man is curious, considering how incompetent the police appear to be. The local cops pick up Crowley early in his stay, interrogating him and slapping him a few times because they haven’t seen him before. When they encounter him he’s made his underground connections, the same police officers treat him with a pathetic deference. In this town, everyone operates out of their own self-interest: doing the wrong thing out of impurity, as Kant would put it.
The suspense is built around the survival of Crowley, after he kills both Ellen and his former self Don, but he is already feeling boxed in by his circumstances. First, he and Anne attempt a road trip out into the countryside, but Anne cannot handle the sight of the suburbs and gets deeply drunk.
She started to drink more gin and tonic. I took the glass away from her and told her to go easy. She pouted at me, then forgot about the drink.
“That split-level,” she said. “That imaginary split-level. I took it and I put a sign on it. Know what the sign said?”
“That’s easy,” she said. “It said, ‘Anne doesn’t live here anymore.’ Like the song. Buy me another drink, Nat.”
One thing Block has always done well is examine what makes people drink, why they drink how much they do, and whether drinking has taking over their life. Anne’s speeches about free choice and independence are frequently accompanied by alcohol. The events that decide her ultimate fate are, in fact, triggered by drinking. On the other hand, Crowley seems to have much more control over his drinking than Don had over his, but this isn’t examined in much detail.
Crowley is, as his embrace of the gangster life demonstrates, at the ultimate stage of corruption – perversity. His perverse will allows him to kill, ensnare Anne into a possessive relationship, and betray his boss with impunity. However, it does seem to gradually rob him of pleasure – an extended trip to Las Vegas with Anne produces only misery and frustration. By the end, we know that Crowley also must be disposed of.
Sinner Man may carry an rigid and unsubtle moral calculus common to many older noir titles, but it also shares in the rapid pace, “cut to the bone” prose, and entertaining plot twists of a good and simple read. It sits in the better half of Block’s early novels; not as ambitious as A Diet of Treacle, but executed more cleanly. It’s certainly better than Borderline, but my favorite of the batch remains the clever heist story Lucky at Cards. Block would go on to write his best books about an alcoholic private detective who makes judgements about greater and lesser evils while pursuing murderers; in that respect Sinner Man is worth a look as an early precedent. 6/10.
* Kant’s 1794 tract Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone contained the first attempt to explain the human tendency toward evil acts in completely secular terms. There is definitely no God in the equation for Sinner Man.