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Tag Archive: Lawrence Block


Review by C.J. Bunce

To begin with, it helps to know that “father of Miami crime fiction” writer Charles Willeford referred to himself as a sociopath.  According to Lawrence Block, Willeford even wrote his first, self-published sequel to his hit novel Miami Blues to offend the book’s fans, specifically to ward off those wanting a sequel written (only to go ahead and write those sequels for the right price later).  Willeford is one of those celebrated pulp crime writers mentioned by other celebrated pulp crime writers, like Block, and Elmore Leonard, and Quentin Tarentino.  So I was looking forward to my first Willeford novel.  Unfortunately, Understudy for Death, originally published in 1961 as Understudy for Love (or Willeford’s intended title, The Understudy: A Novel of Men and Women), was probably not the best candidate.  A lost novel that for Willeford completists has been a true rarity to find in any condition, Understudy for Death is one of this year’s finds by the Hard Case Crime imprint.  In print for the first time in nearly 60 years, it’s one of the imprint’s rare selections that is of value for study of the genre and curiosity more than a crime novel for folks that simply love crime novels.

The typical reader will pick up Understudy for Death and continue, forging on, against his or her own will, because a protagonist so outrage-inducing certainly must get his comeuppance by the last page of the last chapter.  Right?  Not so for Willeford, who was known for challenging convention with his prose, with his choice of character, and their dark situations.  “Crime Does Not Pay” means nothing to Willeford or his lead character, a lazy self-absorbed newspaper writer who goes out of his way not to do his job the right way.  He also goes out of his way to belittle his wife, his marriage, his boss, his friends, and everyone ese he encounters.  He is in every way a cheat and a liar, lying to himself as he commits to writing and publishing a play, cheating on his wife, gaslighting his wife, lying to his readers, and only doing the rare good deed when it benefits himself.  Worst of all, he cheats the reader.

Or maybe that’s Willeford.  How?  Understudy for Death is not the typical eye-grabbing novel, despite the latest great retro-style Paul Mann cover.  As the cover asks, “Why would a happily married Florida housewife pick up her husband’s .22 caliber Colt Woodsman semi-automatic pistol and use it to kill her two young children and herself?  Cynical newspaper reporter Richard Hudson is assigned to find out–and the assignment will send him down a road of self-discovery in this incisive, no-holds-barred portrait of American marriage in the Mad Men era.”  Yep, that’s pretty dark stuff.  I’d venture that a thousand people could try to create an answer for the question posed and never come up with a pulp crime ending that answers the question as Willeford did.  Neither does newspaperman Hudson discover anything about himself, or change in any meaningful way between page one and page 223.  I also pity any wife that ever had a husband like Hudson in 1961 or any other era (if this is even remotely a real portrait of marriage in 1961, I am surprised women didn’t get rid of all men by 1962).  It’s the spectacularly, radically misogynistic stuff of other contemporary works like that found in Peter Benchley’s Jaws and Ian Fleming’s The Spy Who Loved Me.  Plus the 1960s racism that seems even more prevalent in this branch of crime novels.

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sinner-man-cover

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.

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