ROBERT BLOCH – There Is a Serpent in Eden. Zebra, paperback original, 1979. Reprinted by Zebra as The Cunning, paperback, 1981.

   This finds the author of Psycho in John D. MacDonald territory, and not very happy about it.

   “Eden” is a retirement community in California, but it reads a lot like MacDonald’s Florida: plenty of sun, money, and drama in the lives of the aging residents, a half-dozen of whom are unknowingly heading for a crisis that will redefine their lives, much in the manner of All These Condemned — or for that matter, The Bridge of San Luis Rey.

   Bloch sets up the characters and their hang-ups with color and economy: Warren, contemplating suicide; Joe, trying to look like his neighbors and keep his background a secret; Lulu and Homer, just off the farm and uncomfortable in a suburban environment… and each of them, in his or her own way, dealing with old age. We get the sagging nympho, the restless retired cop, the dying man, and the old woman suffering from dementia — and we get Mick, the nasty young caterer planning to rob all these geezers at gunpoint.

   Mick’s enterprise pushes Serpent close to caper-novel territory, but mostly Bloch stays with the suicidal Warren as he looks about him and finds no reason to live. Which gives the author plenty of time to ruminate on society in the late 1970s and wonder where it all went wrong.

   Now I’ll grant you, the late 1970s were hardly the high point of western civilization (that was the late 1960s!) but Warren (or the author) seem unduly harsh to me.

   When this was published, Robert Bloch was in his early 60s, which I like to think of now as the beginnings of approaching pre-middle-age. Seriously though, it’s a time when some folks reflect on days gone by and on their own mortality. But coming from Bloch, the philosophizing is laced with puns and word-play, and the effect is like Travis McGee doing stand-up.

   Somehow the story gets so wrapped up in itself that it’s not until page 218 that anybody gets a knife in the chest — totally unlike Bloch to string the reader along like that, and that’s my only problem with Serpent; when I pick up a Robert Bloch book, I expect some gruesome mystery, a few chills and maybe a ghoul or two. What I get here is Drama. Well done — the robbery and its unraveling is particularly tense and exciting, when we finally get to it — but not the bloody, lurid thing I was looking forward to.