Written by Lawrence Block — Donald Barshter is your typical 1950s train commuting Connecticut salesman. At the opening of Sinner Man, Barshter is 32, has a closet full of Brooks Brothers suits, and a country club membership. One fateful day, he skips his life insurance job to instead buy a pint of booze, get drunk, and catches a gangster film at the cinema. When Barshter gets home he continues to drink and his wife Ellen chides him about it, asking “Haven’t you had enough?”
The quarrel heightens and, as Barshter explains, “It got nasty, the way an argument can, and that’s what you get in a marriage that’s not very good.”
He slaps her, which he later admits is not his first foray into domestic abuse. But this time the slap is different. Barshter’s wife falls and lands badly and dies. He’s freed from his middle-class life, runs away and assumes a new one as Nat Crowley in Buffalo, New York.
Sinner Man is the long lost first book of MWA Grand Master Lawrence Block. The book was published originally under a pseudonym, went out of print, and has been ‘lost’ for about 50 years. Reprinted by Hard Case Crime, it has been updated by Block himself and has an afterword by the author.
Our anti-hero decides that the death of his wife also means the death of Don Barshter, and puts his new Crowley identity to the test in a few ways after arriving in Buffalo. For instance, he enters a bar and starts a brawl. He walks away victorious and feels a new zest for life. So, he continues to root around town looking for a felonious scene. Reading the news to see what illegal activity exists, he seeks it out, and haunts gin mills, flashing his money. The local muscle eventually gets wind of his bar fight, looks for him, and scoops him up.
Block does well showing us the thin line between the two personae – Barshter and Crowley. Crowley interacts with others with a mind always aware of his constructed mask, but his tough guy shtick is believed by the local thugs. Barshter, acting as Crowley, delivers lines that shine as if they were pulled from one of the tough guy movies he continuously slinks off to watch.
The criminals rough him up a bit but soon take a liking to him and he slips into the fold. Two guys, Mustache and Jimmy, bring Crowley to the established crime boss of Buffalo, Lou Barron. Barron pitches Crowley a gig at a local dive bar that serves as a money drop. He is offered $200 a week to tend bar and look the other way. Crowley takes it. Another local tough named Tony Quince, who Crowley befriends when he arrives in upstate New York, wants to take over as the boss of Buffalo and conflict arises with Crowley in the middle.
The second half of the book races along. Crowley is confronted with the real life ramifications of the lifestyle he has assumed. The book doesn’t disappoint and reads like a morality play that shakes out where life is lived in the shadows. The fun here is watching the narrator walk the tightrope between Barshter and Crowley, with final scenes that are poignant and touching. In the end Block gives us a man who must come to terms with himself and decisions he has made.
A great talent is on full display in this debut crime novel. Yes, some of the sentences are mildly clunky and the noir-laced similes don’t hit as hard as the young Block might have imagined they did. That aside, this is a strong work of pulp fiction and you would never know that it was his first. Sinner Man is classic pulp from a master. Readers of David Goodis and Jim Thompson as well as lovers of the TV show Madmen will find themselves right at home with this delicious lost and now recovered gem.
Hard Case Crime/Titan Books
CFL Rating: 4 Stars