Ten-time Edgar Award winner Lawrence Block rose to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s with his Evan Tanner and Matthew Scudder novels. It’s noteworthy that, like Donald Westlake, Block’s early literary work was soft-core porn titles published under pseudonyms like Sheldon Lord, Lesley Evans and Jill Emerson. The first book published under his own name was Grifter's Game. The book was originally titled The Girl on the Beach (Block explained that it had a Brewer/Williams/Rabe feel), but Fawcett Gold Medal changed the title to Mona when they published it in 1961. In 2004, Charles Ardai's Hard Case Crime imprint republished the book as Grifter's Game, as the imprint’s very first release.
The paperback introduces an adept conman named Joe Martin. As we meet Martin, he's arrogantly embracing the receipt of a hotel bill while secretly telling readers that he doesn't have the funds to cover it. After skipping out on the bill, Martin heads to Atlantic City where he steals a suitcase, and identity, from a man called Leonard K. Blake. After settling into a two-week stint at a posh seaside hotel, Martin's silver lining begins to tarnish – he discovers Blake had a lucrative amount of heroin tucked into the suitcase. Martin's hopes of running another successful con becomes even more convoluted when he meets the young, beautiful Mona Brassard.
Lawrence Block's writing - even at this early stage - is so tight and effective. The book doesn't possess an ounce of filler or padding. Instead, the compelling plot speeds along as Mona and Martin's heated passion intensifies. The convincing narrative offers an unusual balance beam for readers to walk – cheer on Martin's criminal behavior or hope that all of the characters face a downfall. With no distinct heroes, I was still invested in the characters’ slow, spiraling descent through robbery, murder and adultery. Block's ending gave me chills, a monumental feat considering it was originally published 60-years ago.
Mona is a masterful crime-noir that proved Lawrence Block was something truly special even 60-years ago. Today, his writing is just as good. Do yourself a favor and read this author. Become familiar with his work. Tell others about it. The affordable Grifter's Game version by Hard Case Crime is a must-have and a great starting point to embrace this author's bold and impressive crime-fiction.
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