In 2016, Hard Case Crime re-released a lost Lawrence Block novel titled “Sinner Man” that was written in the late 1950s and rejected by paperback houses until it was published in 1968 as “Savage Lover” under his Sheldon Lord pseudonym. The story behind this lost work is pretty interesting and is addressed by Block in the afterward to the recent reprint.
The paperback opens with insurance salesman Donald Barshter inadvertently killing his wife during a domestic squabble fueled by alcohol and high emotions. Instead of calling the police and rolling the dice on a likely manslaughter charge, he decides to run away. Barshter splits to Buffalo and creates a new identity for himself as “Nat Crowley,” an enigmatic wise guy from Miami.
Barshter finds it liberating to shed his skin and don a a new personality with a more brash attitude than the insurance industry would permit. As Crowley, he fights, gets laid (fairly graphically, thank heavens) and begins to attract the attention of the local mafia and the Buffalo Police. After he falls in with a crime boss, he becomes enmeshed in regional mob rivalries and makes some difficult choices along the way. Inevitably, things get increasingly murderous as Barshter goes all-in with his new persona.
Reading Block’s earliest writing is such a pleasure because it’s so recognizably him. The dialogue is crisp and realistic and the narrator’s thought process is logical and well-reasoned - even when you need to suspend disbelief that a suburban insurance man can segue so seamlessly into the Syndicate or that his desire to do so is wise under the circumstances.
Block has become a better writer over the past 60 years as you’d expect, but the guy was never a hack. Fans know he’s got real gifts, and he had them back in the day, as well. “Sinner Man” is a stand-alone winner, and you won’t regret the time spent reading this thin rediscovered paperback. Highly recommended.
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