Book Review : Lawrence Block - Sinner Man (1960)
If mystery writing was baseball, Lawrence Block would be Greg Maddux. A guy you thought you've figured out until he gets you with that slick curve ball you didn't expect. He's great at blindsiding you with unexpected character development and plot twists. I would've never picked his early novel Sinner Man's reissue if it hadn't been delivered in my mailbox. Because it seems like a date and conventional noir written in a foregone era. But it isn't. If anything, Lawrence Block's Sinner Man is more pertinent and challenging than ever in 2017. It's going to give you them feels in all the wrong places, like a Greg Maddux curve ball.
Let's elaborate on that.
Sinner Man starts with the protagonist Donald Barshter freakin' murdering his wife and scheming to get away with it. Little context is offered, too. He was drinking, she was talking shit to him, he lashed out and immediately regretted it. Simple, tragic, but Donald doesn't want to take responsibility for it, so he runs away, Takes a train upstate to Buffalo and chooses a new identity for himself : Nathaniel Crowley. On his first night out, Crowley flattens a Canadian tourist at a bar for running his mouth, turning the heads of local organized crime figures. Who is this new guy, who hangs out in all the right places and meets all the right people? Crowley is trying to find out himself.
As implied in its title, there are religious undertones to Sinner Man. It opens on an original sin and its protagonist's subsequent self-exile into the underworld, where all the damned hang out together. If Nathaniel Crowley fits so well with the crowd, it's because he's already carrying a damnation of his own. The inexplicable (and... well, unexplained) murder Barshter commits right off the bat seals his fate. He's unequivocally irredeemable, so he tries to reinvent himself as Crowley, for who murder is just a tool of the trade he's in. That was interesting to me because it asks the question: how far are you willing to go to become somebody else? Despite the religious undertones, Sinner Man is primarily a novel about identity.
Sure, Sinner Man is a little dated. It was written in 1960, so there's no way Donald Barshter would've got away with it in 2017. He would've got caught, tried and executed without a second thought. Barshter ran away from his life into a place where no one is looking for him, where people are seduced by how he carries himself. But the Barshter/Crowley duality is always present for him, because of the inherent damnation attached to it. Murder is what connects the dots between his old and his new existence. Therefore, his murder (the original sin) is what predicated his new existence as Nathaniel Crowley and therefore can never outrun what he has done. I thought Lawrence Block intertwined religion and identity in a quite clever way. It's very impressive for such an early novel.
While I love mid-century detective novels, I can't say that I'm a fan of mid-century noir. I find that they're all either about guys robbing banks or guys not able to control their dicks to save their lives. Sinner Man is more ambitious than that. If you can get past the lurid cover, you'll find a genuine reflection on the murder and the self, which plenty of literary novels that were explicitly about that failed to deliver. Sinner Man is great, rewarding noir, which is something I should've expected from a household name like Lawrence Block. There's more to him than just the Matthew Scudder novels and Sinner Man is a good place to start with the standalone material.