It's been a while since I've read anything by Lawrence Block. Long enough to forget just how brilliant he is as a writer.
The Girl With The Long Green Heart (US) is a grifter novel that is perfectly pitched. One of those reads when you carry a terrible feeling that everything is going to go wrong. You worry that you might be right about that and then you worry that you might be wrong. No matter which way you see it playing out, it doesn't seem like anyone's going to come out of it undamaged and, because you're rooting for the protagonist, a lot of nervous energy is generated.
Johnny is that protagonist. He's pulled jobs alone and in teams and has served hard time as a consequence. He's decided to go straight, managing a bowling alley while he saves his pennies to buy a nearby hotel and takes classes to ensure that when he does buy it he knows how to make it work.
Doug Rance has created the perfect scam. It will give him a wedge to return to the tables at Vegas. If he can persuade Johnny to get on board, then Johnny can own that hotel without all the years of squirreling away nickels and dimes.
Doug plays Johnny. Johnny feels the strings being pulled, but he's all too happy to be drawn in. The pair then carry on with the con, each holding back from the other while setting up the deal.
Their target is Wallace Gunderman. He's a rich landowner who has been stung before. That sting still hurts and it makes him the perfect mark- not only does he want to make money, he's also doing it for pride.
His secretary is key to the deal. Evvie's the one who gave Rance the idea in the first place. As well as being central to the trickery, she's also got it all. She also just happens to be the girl with the long green heart. She's beautiful, clever and a natural when it comes to acting out her role, and she smoulders like any of the best on-screen femme-fatales. It's not long before you start wondering if she's not too good to be true. Perhaps she is, perhaps she isn't. And maybe she's somewhere in between. She's the reason for the queasy feeling and for any scorch marks you might find in your copy.
It's a great story because in so many ways the reader is the mark. Block is twisting our minds all the time. He's manipulating our emotions and our logic and it's such a page turner that we don't have the time to sit back and try to make sense of it.
Having ramped things up from the start, the novel does take a breather just before the denouement. It's a time to pause for breath and to revisit the theories that have been hatching all over the place. There is important information here, but if I have a slight criticism of the book this would be it. When I'm hurtling towards and ending, I really don't want the brakes to go on, I want to fly through that windshield with my eyes open.
The ending itself was as unexpected as it was expected. Enough pieces have been collected along the way to get it half right. The rest of them come flying at you all at once and it's Johnny who takes over to lay them into position with fantastic skill and ease.
This one has a real hard-boiled flavour. The voice is perfect. The descriptions are minimal but nailed. The quips are sharp and the similes original and full of an acerbic humour that I really enjoyed.
I may have felt like a mark from the off, but I certainly didn't feel short changed. Just the opposite. Another Hard Case Crime cracker to add to my list and my thirst for Lawrence Block is back.
Very good indeed.