Sun 19 Feb 2017
by Marcia Muller
LAWRENCE BLOCK – After the First Death. The Macmillan Co., hardcover, 1969. Paperback reprints include: Carroll & Graf, 1994; ibooks, 2002.
Lawrence Block is a top-flight professional who has written numerous novels featuring extremely diverse characters and situations. His characterization ranges from the grim depths glimpsed in some of his non-series books and in his series about alcoholic ex-policeman Matthew Scudder, to the lightweight but amusing private eye/writer Chip Harrison, burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr, and spy Evan Tanner. Whether Block is chronicling a deadly search or a playful romp, he is a consummate master of suspense and manages to keep his reader fearing for the safety of — and solidly rooting for — his protagonist until the last page is turned.
The premise of this non-series novel is the real-life nightmare of awakening hung over and in a strange place, in the presence of a corpse. Alex Penn awakes to find himself in what obviously is a cheap Manhattan hotel room; there is the severely mutilated body of a hooker on the floor next to the bed, and Penn, an alcoholic coming out of a blackout, does not remember what has happened. At this point, however, Block adds a new twist to a shocking but stock situation: Penn has killed in this manner during a previous blackout, and has only recently been paroled from prison.
Determined not to return to prison, Penn escapes from the hotel and hides out from the police. But as he sobers, an image appears to him: that of an arm wielding the murder knife — an arm that is not his. He realizes he isn’t guilty of the crime, has indeed been framed. And he concludes that he may very well also have been framed for the first murder.
What follows is a cat-and-mouse investigation in which Penn slips from place to place in New York and environs, showing up to question old friends and enemies who he thinks may have wanted to see him convicted of murder. As he becomes more and more convinced of his innocence, he enlists the aid of a sympathetic hooker (and heroin addict) and begins to gather hard evidence.
The outcome of this investigation hinges on a somewhat unlikely coincidence, but it forces a satisfyingly realistic resolution of Penn’s quandary. Likewise, his growing involvement with Jackie, the hooker who aids him, is believable and satisfying.
Other Block non-series novels are Death Pulls a Double Cross (1961), The Girl with the Long Green Heart (1965), and The Specialists (1969).
Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007. Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.