LAWRENCE BLOCK – Lucky at Cards

Hard Case Crime; paperback reprint, Feb 2007. First published as The Sex Shuffle, by Sheldon Lord; Beacon B757x, paperback original, 1964.

   Here’s a crackerjack of a crime novel published in 1964 that has been a loosely kept secret, not even appearing in Allen J. Hubin’s Crime Fiction IV until now, which is when the folks at Hard Case Crime have essentially let the entire world know about it. Everyone, that is, but a small handful of diehard collectors who delve into and devour what are called the “sleaze” books in the trade, Beacon being one of the better and more well known providers of the same.

Lucky at Cards

   Not that the “sex scenes” in Beacon’s output are anything near torrid, given today’s standards, and The Sex Shuffle, if anything, is tamer than most. On the other hand, if you believe the quality of the writing in the Beacon books is anything like that of The Sex Shuffle, you’d be fairly well mistaken. They were written quickly for the most part, mostly by men who had one eye on the market and other on their landlord, whenever the rent was due — sometimes with hidden talent but far more often, what you read was what you got.

   Nor do I think searching out Sheldon Lord’s books in general would necessarily be a worthwhile pursuit, unless you are one of those aforementioned diehard collectors, or this book persuades you to become one. An article in Books Are Everything, which I have not seen, is reported to have stated that Block was “the first user of the Sheldon Lord pseudonym, followed by Hal Dresner, followed by Milo Perichitch.” There are also claims that say that Donald Westlake was one of the writers behind Sheldon Lord, but since this statement seems to have been questioned immediately by others, you’d better not rely very much on my saying so.

   In any case, what you have here, whatever its lineage may have been, is a near perfect low-level novel of crime and lust and greed and comeuppance and all of the other noir-related themes you can think of, written so smoothly that its 220 pages can be read in an hour, without once coming up for air.

   Story: a professional cardshark is stuck in a two-bit town while recuperating from his last scrape with — not the law — but with real gamblers in a real game and of course there was a woman at the root of it. Quoting from page 19:

   … At two in the morning a little man with hollow eyes had seen me dealing seconds. “A goddamned number two man,” he yelled. “A stinking mechanic.”

   They hadn’t even asked for an explanation. They took back their twenty-three hundred plus the five hundred I started with. They hauled me out behind the store and propped me up against the wall. One of them put on a pair of black leather gloves. He worked me over, putting most of his punches in the gut. The one that broke my teeth was a mistake — I slipped and fell into it, and the guy belted me in the mouth by accident …

   Thus beginning the book with this pair of introductory lines:

   If it hadn’t been for the dentist, I would headed on out of town. The guy had a two-room office in the old medical building on the main drag, and I saw him on Monday and Wednesday and Friday of the first week I spent in town.

   The town isn’t mentioned, or if it is, I missed it, and even so I’d rather think of it as one of those typical small Midwestern towns of the sixties that was still living in the fifties at the time, with small town businesses and small town businessmen and small town wives…

   Except for one of them. From page 27, and an even longer quote this time. The dentist has invited Bill Maynard to a friendly small town poker game:

   I was busy losing a hand when I heard footsteps on the stairs and glanced up. I saw the legs first — long and slender, and a skirt ending at the knees. I folded my cards and had a look at the rest.

   She wasn’t quite beautiful. The body was perfect, with hooker’s hips and queen-sized breasts and a belly that had just the right amount of bulge to it. The hair was the color of a chestnut when you pick the husk from it. She had the hair bound up in a French roll. It was stylish as hell, but you started imagining how this female was with her hair down and spread out over a white pillow.

   The face was heart-shaped, with a pointed chin and wide-spaced eyes. Green eyes. There were little tension lines in the corners of those eyes, and there were matching lines around her mouth. Her mouth was a little too full and her nose was a little too long, and that’s why I say she wasn’t beautiful, exactly. But perfection always puts me off. There’s something dry and sterile about an utterly beautiful woman. This one didn’t put me off at all. She kept me staring hard at her.

   This is one of those moments when the clock simply stops ticking, in other words. Her name is Joyce, and it turns out that she has a sharp eye out for a man who’s (too) good at cards. One thing leads to another, as things like this happen to do, and the husband is in the way. Bill Maynard has a plan, an outrageous plan, and even when you read it for the first time, it sounds outrageous but you go along with it, simply because Bill Maynard knows his plan will work.

   It doesn’t involve murder, not quite, or maybe it does, in a way, and of course it doesn’t work. Not at least, the way that Bill Maynard thinks it will. Did I mention that there is also a “good girl” in this story, a grade school teacher named Barbara who thinks that maybe she wants a bad man? Bill thinks she deserves a house and kids, and says good-bye. She’s not in the plan.

   What is the plan, how is it supposed to work, why doesn’t it work, and what it is with women who are attracted to bad men? Read the book, and you will learn.

   It does go a little over the top — a small misstep once or twice somewhere near the end — but all in all, it is the truth: about bad men (and bad women, for that matter) and life in small towns and a small chunk of our past, all in an hour’s reading. I kid you not.

— February 2007