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Disclaimer: I received a free copy of Sinner Man for review purposes.
If you’re a long time reader of The Soap Boxers, you’ve probably read others articles I’ve written about Lawrence Block. If not, you can find them all here. Block is my favorite author. He’s been writing professionally since the 1950s, and as a result has a pretty incredible number of books to his name.
While Sinner Man isn’t Block’s first novel, it’s his first crime novel. He sold it a half century ago, and then it disappeared into a black hole, never to be seen again. Until a few years ago, when a Facebook friend of Block’s pointed it out to him. It had been renamed by the publisher (as publishers are apt to do), but it was his book. It was resurrected from the dead, and is now available anew from Hard Case Crime. (Note that Block does a much better job telling this tale than I do – it’s in the book’s afterword.)
Donald Barshter is a square – a normal guy, selling life insurance in Connecticut. One night, he has a booze-fueled argument with his wife. It ends with Barshter smacking her across the face. She falls awkwardly and ends up dead.
Fear immediately grips Barshter. He decides to hit the road and assume a new identity. He ends up in Buffalo. Why Buffalo, you might ask? I suspect it’s because Block himself is from Buffalo.
Barshter gets himself a brand new social security card (which was much easier to do in those days) and becomes Nat Crowley. Crowley won’t be able to get an honest job, because he has no academic credentials or professional references in that name.
Crowley is determined to get involved with the Buffalo mob. If he can’t get an honest job, why not get a job cooking the books for the crooks? Before too long, he’s running a bar, and not longer after that he’s an important cog in the Buffalo crime industry
Aside from Barshter/Crowley, there are only a few characters with much “screen time” in the book. Many of the characters end up dead, which limits the author’s ability to provide much definition. Crowley is defined very well, and we get a good idea of that his motivation is, even though the logic seems hard to grasp at time.
I enjoyed the book. The knowledge that it was Block’s first crime novel and the back story of its disappearance and reappearance certainly biases me, and I think I would have liked it a bit less if I read it blind, with no knowledge of the author. Specifically, the crime bosses seem a bit too willing to accept Crowley’s at his word. Even in the 50s and 60s, I would think they would be done a more comprehensive vetting job. Having said that, Block is a great story teller, and he does spin a good story in this book. Many of the scenes are very well done.
If you’re a fan of Block’s work, you definitely want to have this book in your collection. It’s a good sample of Block’s early writing and give great insight into how his writing style has changed over time. If this is your first exposure to Block, I think you’ll also enjoy it – and I urge you to check out his other work.
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