Discovering the Hard Case Crime imprint has led me toward the early work of a few widely-known crime authors, including those of Lawrence Block. I’ve found the early Block novels variable in quality, but usually interesting for the characters and plot devices that show up later in his Scudder titles. So far, Borderline has been the worst and Lucky at Cards the best out of the group. The latter book illustrates a grifter’s tricky navigating of a scam he is not really prepared to perpetrate, and this difficulty puts it a mark above an earlier grifter story, Grifter’s Game.
The Girl With the Long Green Heart (1965) is still another grifter story, this time with an ex-convict teaming with an old friend to carry out one last scam. I found it to be both patient in its buildup and efficiently told, with a cast of interesting – if familiar – characters.
The four principal characters of TGWtLGH are all described well enough so that we know why they take their actions, but not so much that they feel predictable:
* The narrator is Johnny, an ex-convict acclimating to the slow rewards of an honest living as a night manager of a bowling alley. His talent as a confidence man came from being able to “push the honest and sincere bit,” as he states without explanation. Johnny may not understand where this ability comes from, but Block manages to illustrate it through contrast with the other male characters. He is generally risk-averse but has an admitted weakness for women.
* Johnny’s once-and-future partner is Doug, an outwardly charming criminal who never had to serve much hard time for his sins. Doug catches up with Johnny in Colorado and, with some effort, ropes him into a real estate scam operation, where the two of them pose as a Canadian corporation. We actually do not see much of Doug, but his slick manners and aggressive style make their presence felt.
* Wally Gunderman is their intended target, or “mooch” in the grifters’ parlance. He is a classic speculator of distressed land, buying up large plots from the financially desperate and holding on to them until the opportunity for profit arrives. His method of accumulating wealth is legitimate but exploitative, something Block goes through substantial effort to show as comparable to Doug and Johnny’s operation.
* Evvie Stone is Wally’s secretary and “kept woman,” living on her own in a dingy apartment. Wally had been sleeping with for her for some time, and when Mrs. Gunderson suddenly died, Evvie harbored expectations of a marriage proposal. Alas, Wally wanted to keep their arrangement as-is, leading to her solo trip to Las Vegas — where she met Doug. The cover art of the two paperback editions shown here advertise the fact that she is up to more than she seems at first.
These characters are all introduced through a surprisingly patient build-up section that spans several chapters. The plan, hatched by Doug, is to pretend to offer to buy some remote Canadian land (“moose pasture”) from Gunderson. Gunderson has this land only because he was suckered into believing it had uranium deposits, and he paid an outrageously inflated price. Johnny poses as the paid gopher, flying in town to set up a meeting by phone. A company would obviously reach out with a letter, but the grifters rely on their personal act to sell the fiction: Evvie agrees to plant the letter in Gunderson’s papers, so that he actively looks for it after a conversation with Johnny. Johnny’s offer is to buy at pennies-on-the-dollar, which Gunderson refuses, but not before becoming intrigued in the “company” he represents.
It is a meticulously planned scam operation, pitting Gunderson’s shrewdness against him, seeking a large briefcase of cash for the entire company. It reminded me of the private equity horror stories from the past couple of years; in particular, Theranos, the blood-testing company that reached a value of 9 billion dollars before the truth about its horrifically bad science came to light. There are numerous other examples of new corporations hyped to incredible (and not in a good way) valuations.
The combination of Doug’s charm and Johnny’s ability to look trustworthy seem to be enough to keep Gunderson hooked. The interactions between Johnny and his mooch, with Johnny playing a role that lies somewhere between innocent and small-time schemer, build a clever sequence of cerebral contests:
“There’s a lot of land up in that neck of the woods,” I said.
“Yes, I know that.”
“And we’ve had little difficulty buying it at our price so far,” I went on, and then stopped abruptly and studied the tablecloth in front of me.
“You’re interested in more than just my land, then.”
His eyes probed mine. I met his glance for a moment, then averted my eyes. When I looked back he was still scanning my face.
Gunderson even encourages Evvie to spend time showing Johnny “around town,” to buy him time to dig into the company’s holdings. Even this is part of the plan, as Evvie feeds her boss enough chum to think he’s at the controls. However, the build-up ends when Johnny and Evvie end up in bed together for the first time, an event that Johnny keeps secret by lying to Doug.
From then on we know that the scam may unravel at any point, and certainly won’t finish as planned. Block fits in a few unexpected turns, even at the late stages, and allows Evvie to become more of a factor in the plot – both as someone who seeks control over her own fate, and as the secret sitting between Johnny and Doug. It’s not as rich as his better Scudder novels, but TGWtLGH sits with Lucky at Cards as the best of Block’s early work. 7/10.
This has long been a favorite of mine. I personally think it’s the best novel about a long con ever written, Jim Thompson’s The Grifters being the best book about short cons and the people who pull them. Westlake’s God Save The Mark is almost certainly the best about us poor suckers who fall for either, though there’s not much competition in that last category, since nobody wants to be the mark. (You could make a case for Westlake’s Two Much! being the best novel about a con improvised on the fly, but I don’t think that even counts as a subgenre.)
What interested me about it when I first read it was that it had that same Westlake-ian obsession with identity–Johnny doesn’t know who he is when the book starts, and he does by the time it ends. He’s lost everything, but he’s regained himself. (I suppose that’s a spoiler, though as you mention, both covers for this book kind of give the twist away, but with art like that, who’s complaining?)
Probably the most jarring moment for contemporary readers is when Johnny brings a gun with him when he takes a flight–no metal detectors, no body scans, no searches, just walks onto the plane with it. Reminding us that for all the skullduggery afloat, this really is a more innocent time, even for grifters.
As with Lucky at Cards, it’s figuring out who you are that counts–you don’t have to have the same code as everyone else, but you have to have a code. But you’re right, there is also that note of social satire, of pointing out that the worst grifters usually have the law on their side. And if only there was a real Evvie out there to take care of the worst one.
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The gun-on-the-plane scene is interesting, especially since Johnny brought it on board more or less accidentally. He’s rather calm about the whole situation, though. If the book took place in the 21st century, Block would have figured out another way to dispose of the weapon.
The mail fraud element would be more difficult to update. I think the fact that the two crooks can 1.) anticipate who Gunderson asks when he does his research, and 2.) head this off by mailing fake letters from various cities, puts this grifter story squarely in the past. Do these kind of plots get made in contemporary settings?
Oh much sooner than the 21st century–remember that scene from High Anxiety, where Mel Brooks and Madeleine Kahn pretend to be kvetchy old people, in order to sneak a gun on a plane. “I beeped! Take me away! Take me back to Russia! Put me in irons! I beeped! The mad beeper is loose!”
If they ever made a movie, they’d have to either do it period, or write out that whole sequence. I suppose the mail fraud is another problem, but given how much e-fraud there is, not that hard to update. They’d just take it to the digital realm. Wouldn’t have quite the same feel to it, though.
You’re asking me if these kinds of plots get made in contemporary settings? Dude, we’re LIVING this kind of plot! Grifters have gone mainstream! Somehow not so romantic anymore, though I have to say, I feel a certain appreciation for Michael Wolff. Sometimes it takes a conman to take a conman, you know?
As to the sex scenes in the book, some things in this world don’t need an upgrade. 😉
I read several of the Scudders, incidentally. Great atmosphere, but I’m never really convinced by the protagonist. Far as I’m concerned, Block was doing his own take on Mitch Tobin there, didn’t quite pull it off, milked it a bit too long–but it was a more palatable fantasy for the reading public. The movies invariably suck, but what else is news?
I’m so far less than fully enthused with Mr. Block’s series fiction–Rhodenbarr and Keller likewise failed to grip me, though the latter works pretty well in short stories. I keep meaning to read some of the Evan Tanner novels.
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The Scudder character takes a few volumes to come together. I think “Eight Million Ways to Die” is the fourth one in the series, and in that one Scudder finally confronts his drinking problem. I have continued to read the Scudder books for Block’s careful and nuanced take on alcoholism. Block pushes the limits for violence, which occasionally ends up ruining the book. But more often than not, his Scudder volumes are well worth getting into.
I don’t know who Mitch Tobin was, but then again I’m still pretty new to the whole crime genre…
I’ve also read a bunch of the Rhodenbarr books, but those are clever entertainments without much depth. The secondary recurring characters keep showing up, but just never get interesting. Nonetheless, every so often I pull the next one out of the library.
The first one is entertaining, and the premise is interesting (if a bit second-hand), but there might as well have been a blinking neon sign over the killer’s house saying “THIS WAY TO THE KILLER.”
I skipped ahead to Eight Ways, and it’s a fine book, but still–underwhelmed. And since I had the general sense that it was considered the best entry in the series, I went no further. All the more since Block had essentially resolved his hero’s conflict. When Westlake did that with Mitch Tobin, he stopped writing about Mitch Tobin. Block treasures all his franchise boys, and keeps them all trucking along. Even when there’s no point. The point is people keep buying the books, right?
I assumed since you’d gotten into Westlake, and had been to my blog, you’d know who Mitch Tobin was. A foolish assumption. As Tucker Coe, Westlake wrote five novels in the 60’s (published into the early 70’s) about a depressed ex-police detective, retired in disgrace after a scandal that brought him to the brink of suicide, who keeps getting approached to solve murders, even though all he wants to do is stay in his backyard and build a brick wall to keep the world out. The world just keeps barging right in.
Eight Ways is probably better than the last Tobin, but I’d rank it well below the previous four. Many would not. Block’s sad detective who isn’t formally a detective is sexier, cooler, better-looking. Westlake’s has a lot more depth to him. But he doesn’t have any gorgeous hooker friends (with benefits. ) Block does not acknowledge any debt to the Tobins for Scudder, but he and Westlake were always very competitive.
I’d rank the first four Tobins with the very best work Westlake ever did. But after the fifth, he just decided he’d used Tobin up, fixed him as much as he could be fixed, and there was nothing more to be done with him. And I think also he just found that a depressive hero is depressing to write about.
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