When Elmore Leonard said that Laurence Block grabs the reader and never lets go, he showed he had Block figured out. Apparently that applies back to Block’s first crime novel, just released for the first time under Block’s name after more than 50 years. Sinner Man is one of the rare books sought out and released by Hard Case Crime, known for its publishing of never before seen, shelved novels of well-known writers and reprints of out-of-print novels from decades past. As with Michael Crichton’s and Gore Vidal’s early lost novels, reviewed previously here at borg.com, Block knew how to craft a compelling noir piece from the start of his career.
Sinner Man follows an insurance salesman, a hothead, who accidentally kills his wife during an argument. Instead of turning himself in and facing a manslaughter charge, he plots out a plan to create a new life, in modern parlance “off the grid.” What will keep readers glued to the story is the path he takes, the methodical “how to” guide Block lays out for anyone who wants to disappear in the Northeast U.S. circa 1950s. As he discusses in an afterword, some of the details allowed a criminal to vanish more simply then compared to today, which almost begs for a modern-day update. Readers will not be able to avoid adapting and contrasting his plan to today’s world as the story develops. According to Block, the title Sinner Man was derived from the spiritual song about a man who could not escape no matter where he turned.
Block’s anti-hero ends up working for a small city mob network. His lead is a typical bad man with tastes for booze and good clothes. Readers will not be cheering for him as much as wondering when and how he is going to “get what’s coming to him” if the classic Crime Does Not Pay lesson from pulp stories rings true. He’s a thug, he’s violent toward women, and becomes a killer for hire. The mob here isn’t the kind you’d find in the Godfather, but more like the lower echelon heavies in Casino and Goodfellas.
Block’s writing and story in his first crime venture are slightly better than some of the similarly themed novels from Ian Fleming we’re reviewed here at borg.com, like The Spy Who Loved Me and Live and Let Die, yet not as riveting as Crichton’s early work as in Grave Descend, or Gore Vidal’s lost early novel Thieves Fall Out. Yet, if you can get past the misogyny and Mad Men-era antics, you’ll find a solid pulp noir mob story here, especially for a first-time effort.
The afterword discusses the story of how Sinner Man was first published, originally with a pen name–Sheldon Lord–and under the title Savage Lover, and how Block never heard what happened to the novel after he sent it off to the publisher and his career otherwise took off. His original editor apparently had him beef up the sex scenes, no surprise to readers of Block’s early crime novels. Sinner Man is one of those quick-read, throwaway, noir pulp paperbacks you’d swap out at the Greyhound bus station back in the 1960s and 1970s. But that tends to be what many crime novel fans are looking for–the flipside of the romance novel spinner rack–a story of a guy stuck in circumstance, and trying to carve his way back out.
A must for fans of Lawrence Block’s early work, Sinner Man is available here at Amazon.