During the heyday of paperback originals of the 1950s and 1960s, a prolific author could compound his income by selling books to multiple publishers under a variety of pseudonyms. It’s become the hobby of many modern fans to serve as detectives and pulp anthropologists to uncover the real authors of the genre novels of the era. Sometimes, a reprint publisher does the work for you. Hard Case Crime acquired the rights to reprint Lawrence Block’s sexy 1964 con-man caper novel, “The Sex Shuffle”, written under Block’s Sheldon Lord moniker. Hard Case Crime gave the book a new title, “Lucky at Cards”, and commissioned some new cover art for the re-release under the author’s own name.
Our narrator and anti-hero Bill Maynard is a former magician and professional poker cheat known to his fellow con artists as Wizard. When we meet Maynard, he is recovering from a beating in Chicago when he receives an invitation to a friendly game from his dentist. After practicing his fake shuffles and tricky deals in the mirror for awhile, he’s ready to thicken his wallet with his card manipulation skills.
The reader is given a fascinating tour through the tricks and nomenclature of a professional card mechanic. At the game, Maynard brings in some good money dealing from the bottom of the deck (“a subway deal”) and bypassing the top card (“dealing seconds”) while the middle-class pigeons are none-the-wiser. The short con gets complicated when the host’s trophy wife catches him and let’s Maynard know in con-man parlance that he’s been made without alerting the game’s other players. In a private conversation later, we learn that sexy femme fatale Joyce has a colorful past, and she’s grown sick of playing the role of a dutiful bride to her boring lawyer husband.
After some fairly hot (by 1964 standards) forbidden coupling, Maynard and Joyce hatch a plot to make an end-run around the husband’s less-than-generous will to get his money and run away together. Complications - including a love triangle - arise along the way peppered by more lusty sex scenes. The con runs into problems and the reader is treated to plenty of twists and turns along the way. It’s a helluva good ride. Without spoiling anything, the final climactic scene of the novel was a contrived and corny let-down followed by a more satisfying and redeeming epilogue.
Even early in his career, Lawrence Block had a knack for first-person narrative readability. The dialogue is snappy, and the conversational style makes this an easy and fun story. The action is all cerebral - more like The Sting or The Cincinnati Kid - than the violent crime novels of the era. The sex scenes are erotic without being graphic - a delicate needle to thread.
There are probably better paperbacks to serve as an introduction to Block’s vast body of work, but The Sex Shuffle/Lucky at Cards is a worthwhile read for hardcore Lawrence Block fans. It’s a quick and easy read with lots of cool moments and vivid characters.