Sinner Man, by Lawrence Block

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.

sinnerman

Michael Koelsch cover for Hard Case Crime. hardcasecrime.com

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?”

“What?”

“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.

About pete

former academic scientist and presently a software engineer. Also, a science fiction and crime fiction book-blogger.
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6 Responses to Sinner Man, by Lawrence Block

  1. fredfitch says:

    I also prefer Lucky at Cards–this is a darker more fatalistic story, and Block didn’t always excel at those, being a fundamentally optimistic writer. Yes, life gets tough, but you can figure a way to survive. Don’s just figured out how to keep reinventing himself, to the point where he can’t quite remember who he used to be anymore. Westlake did a more interesting take on this later, in his script for The Stepfather. (Incidentally, maybe not a coincidence the protagonist’s name is Donald).

    There’s a lot of genre tropes here (how much of an underworld did Buffalo actually have?), maybe too many, but you might as well complain about quick-draw gunfights sexy bar girls and virtuous schoolmarms in a western (actually, there’s a schoolmarm of sorts in Lucky at Cards). You go with it or you don’t. In the end, it comes down to how skillfully they’re evoked.

    These books were written at a higher level than the sleaze paperbacks both Block and Westlake cranked out by the cartload, but still far from the best Block was capable of. But Block, like Westlake, is fascinated by human identity, and how it can change under stress. He approaches it quite differently. He recently published a novella, Reduce Speed, that I think ranks with his best work–about a man who just drifts from one identity to another. He’s Don/Crowley a lot further down the road. And most of the tropes are gone.

    Liked by 1 person

    • pete says:

      I think you meant “Resume Speed,” which the Phoenix library lists as “on order.” Presumably, it’ll show up sometime. Anyway, nice to know that’s it’s worth checking out at some point.

      I was tempted to compare Sinner Man with Westlake’s 361, but despite the similarity in settings, slew of mobsters and places each book has in the authors’ respective careers, they’re very different. The main character gets transformed – losing an eye as well as his ability to walk around normally – through the actions of criminals, and has his brother around to question the morality of his pursuit for vengeance. Still, I picked up these titles for approximately the same reason.

      I have a lot more titles in the Hard Case Crime catalog on my to-read list. Even when they turn out to be mediocre, they’re almost always entertaining and others seem to have interesting things to say about them.

      Like

      • fredfitch says:

        That’ll teach me to post when I’m marginally conscious (not that it ever has before).

        Stories about ordinary people swept into a life of crime, on film or in print, were not at all uncommon, since the start of the Postwar Era. And as 361 demonstrates, not always paperbacks (actually, was Sinner Man a paperback original? Can’t find much about the original edition–even what pseudonym it was published under, or why would it be under a pseudonym.)

        So what’s interesting is not the idea, old hat by then, but the spin Block puts on it. The fact that the murder of his wife is treated so casually. Right away, we’re told this is not an innocent man, or someone not to blame for his plight–not someone we should feel sorry for. Even Horace McCoy, in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, came up with a reason for why his amoral protagonist was the way he was. But after a while, it became more commonplace to just say “This is the hero, not a good guy, take him or leave him.” But ultimately, you trace that type of story and protagonist back to McCoy and maybe Charles Williams (who I’ve yet to read). Different from what Woolrich and Cain did. Testing to see how much the audience would accept, and turned out they’d accept just about anything if you made it entertaining.

        This is Block’s first crime novel (which is to say, his first non-sleaze), and you’d expect some rough edges. Published the same year as Westlake’s The Mercenaries. Which on the whole, is a better book, but neither comes close to 361. That took the form to a new level. But again, noir morality, which is very existentialist. If you remember who you are, you’ll be okay. (Kind of.)

        Liked by 1 person

  2. fredfitch says:

    To address your main quibble–the morality of the book–that is always the problem with crime fiction. Which people read, in a sense, to escape from conventional morality for a while. You read a book like Sinner Man, the last thing you want is for him to do the right thing. You want to go into that dangerous underworld with him, prove you’re the most dangerous animal in the jungle, or you could be if it came to that. And just how is this any different than Breaking Bad? Mainly in that Block takes much less time to tell the same basic story. And there’s no dubious science that will later get debunked on Mythbusters.

    The form he’s writing in demands that a man explore the dark side of society, find previously unknown capacities for evil in himself, but eventually get punished for it. In a movie, he’d end up dead or in cuffs. Block wants to push that envelope a bit–sure, he’ll get his comeuppance eventually, but doesn’t everyone? His real punishment is that he doesn’t know who he is anymore, he’s doomed to drift in limbo, disconnected from everything and everybody.

    Whereas, in Lucky At Cards, the protagonist rediscovers himself, goes back to what he was meant to be, finds one person he can be absolutely real with. He gets near the edge, but doesn’t go over it, pulls back in time. That’s noir morality. Hang onto yourself, remember who you are, and you’ll be okay. (Maybe.)

    There were so many books like this being written then, you could spent a lifetime reading them all, and probably there are better ways to spend your time. Most of them were not very good. But at its best, this is a very exciting form of storytelling, because it forces us to confront the disconnect between what we think is right and what we think we want. And we can be wrong about both.

    This is a middling example of that.

    If you want to see how far it can go, try Willeford’s Cockfighter sometime. Or The Burnt Orange Heresy. (Apologies if you’ve already read them.)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: So Nude, So Dead, by Ed McBain | gaping blackbird

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