Lawrence Block’s Sinner Man was originally published under a pseudonym, nearly fifty years ago. This month, Hard Case Crime is bringing the book back into print under Block’s own name. The story behind the book’s disappearance and rediscovery over the years is fascinating and is thoroughly documented in an afterword to the new edition by Block himself. While he would go on to achieve acclaim as one of America’s top mystery and crime writers, Sinner Man was his first stab at writing a novel-length work of crime fiction. The book is an intriguing look back at Block’s developing talent for crime stories. It’s pure pulp, noir fiction at its finest. To say that Block hit the ground running to start his crime-writing career would be an understatement.
Sinner Man‘s narrator is Donald Barshter, an insurance man from the Connecticut suburbs who accidentally murders his wife at the start of the novel. Everything that follows after that is documenting Don’s attempts at running from his crime and establishing a new life for himself elsewhere. He comes to the conclusion that hiding in plain sight while working for the mob is his best option. Settling in Buffalo, New York, Don fabricates a new identity for himself as Nat Crowley and begins his ascension up the ranks of the Buffalo crime syndicate. It’s simultaneously shocking how easily Nat ingratiates himself with local crime bosses and insinuates himself into the fabric of the town’s criminal activity. For an insurance man who had been living a quiet and even dull life previously, Nat’s transition to enforcer and premeditated killer is dramatic.
Nat’s ability to so thoroughly transform himself into a professional criminal after committing that first, unplanned, murder is one that might seem unlikely at first. But over the course of the novel, as Block reveals more of Nat’s inner thoughts through his narration, it becomes clear that Nat is quite likely a borderline sociopath. I saw borderline because there are moments where he seems to be teetering on the edge of feeling remorse, but in every instance he fights it off by hardening himself just a little bit further. His seeming lack of remorse for the murder that begins his descent to the dark side is chilling and a constant reminder that this was a man who’s life only needed that one spark—murder—to set him on the wrong path. Sinner Man is in many ways a meditation on the nature evil and how it may well reside in the most innocuously mundane of men.
Block populates Sinner Man with colorful mobsters and a gun moll of sorts in Ann Bishop. At first Ann provides flirting romantic companionship for Nat, but over time the cracks start to form in their twisted relationship and eventually Nat uses his mob connections to turn her into a kept woman. Ann, feeling used and manipulated, begins pushing back, which leads to some of the novel’s most tense and frightening moments. Block gives us two people running from their seemingly dull and uninspiring past lives, but whose connection erodes over time as Nat continues to slide down into the abyss. He commits several mob murders, becomes entangled in a double-cross between mob bosses, and mostly seems bored by it all. Ann is all fire and spunk while Nat is reserved to the point of being comatose at times. As we never knew Nat before the murder that begins the book, it’s hard to know if he was always this way or if that initial murder simply broke a part of him to pieces.
Hard Case Crime continues to do important work in rescuing and reissuing long-lost classics like Sinner Man. Their beautifully evocative covers, this one by Michael Koelsch, are just one example of the level of detailed care Hard Case puts into the production of their books. By keeping the best of hard-boiled crime fiction in print, they’re preserving an essential piece of literary history. The crime novel is famous for blisteringly cynical narrators (usually men), intelligent and sassy women, and gruesome deaths. Sinner Man is a splendid example of the form, and is highly recommended for both fans of and newcomers to the genre.
Sinner Man, by Lawrence Block, is available from Hard Case Crime.