It is hard to believe as we sit here in the 21st century, but there was a point in time when Lawrence Block was not a household name. It is just as difficult, in some ways, to comprehend that Block is well into his fifth decade of writing classic crime fiction. Exhibit A is THE GIRL WITH THE LONG GREEN HEART. First published in 1965 as a paperback original, it has been reissued here under the Hard Case Crime imprint. Hard Case has been carefully and cannily publishing a mix of original and out-of-print crime novels, and THE GIRL WITH THE LONG GREEN HEART, like other reissues from the house, is more than a snapshot of a currently established writer at the infant stage of his career. It is a demonstration of the early, and unacknowledged, brilliance that Block was exhibiting while toiling in relative shadow.
One who reads this book will have to do so with the knowledge that almost all of the modern conveniences that we take for granted --- computers, the Internet, fax machines, even telephone caller ID --- did not exist. Anyone, however, who has recently opened an email purporting to be from a Nigerian industrialist seeking aid in removing $27 million from a frozen bank account will immediately recognize Johnny Hayden and Doug Rance. Hayden is newly released from hard time in San Quentin, working in a bowling alley while he attempts to save up enough money to buy a small bar of his own. Rance, a casual acquaintance from Hayden's shady past, approaches him with a quick-score proposition.
The object of their exercise is Wallace Gunderman, a no-nonsense real estate mogul who is ripe for the picking. Rance even has a source inside Gunderman's office, though it hardly could be described as a mole in any sense of the word. Gunderman's beautiful secretary, Evelyn Stone, may also be his lover, but Gunderman has reneged on his promise to marry her. Stone, a woman scorned, is accordingly ready to enact a financial and personal revenge on Gunderman. All Hayden and Rance need is a hook that Gunderman will find irresistible. Hayden is reluctantly drawn into the scheme --- he doesn't want to go back to jail --- but the challenge of setting the plan in motion, not to mention the possibility of quickly getting the seed money necessary to fulfill his entrepreneurial dream, becomes too strong a lure.
Things go smoothly, and it almost seems as if the trio will pull it off. Longtime readers of the genre perhaps will see trouble coming, but Block, just a few years into an already brilliant career at the time this forgotten classic was written, manages to inject a surprise or two that will still resonate with and delight present-day thriller aficionados. The most important element of the book, however, is the journey, and Block provides a triptych that is long --- not only on the ultimate reliability of its destination but also upon the scenery along the way.
THE GIRL WITH THE LONG GREEN HEART is yet another example of why both Block and Hard Case Crime are indispensable. Highly recommended.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 22, 2011