Lawrence Block is one of the greatest American mystery writers who ever lived. He has proven that time and time again in over 100 books. Series characters created by Block, such as alcoholic PI Matt Scudder, the lighthearted burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr and the stamp-collecting hit man named Keller, are beloved by millions. In the mid-1990s, the Mystery Writers of America honored him with the title of Grand Master, which he richly deserved.
STRANGE EMBRACE and 69 BARROW STREET are two early gems written by Block, now published for the first time in half a century and under the author’s own name by Hard Case Crime. They are a must-read for all his fans.
In the old days of publishing, now rapidly changing, you would have to wait a year or two to read a new Block novel. And your ability to read any book by your favorite writer was limited by the amount of copies of his or her work that were still in print and on bookstore shelves. Some of us remember the delight in working our way through the Block or Robert B. Parker or Donald E. Westlake shelves of our local bookstore. This is how writers went to college in their craft.
"STRANGE EMBRACE and 69 BARROW STREET are two early gems written by Block, now published for the first time in half a century and under the author’s own name by Hard Case Crime. They are a must-read for all his fans."
The challenge was that many great authors, like Block and Westlake, had careers that stretched back to the days of pulp fiction and wrote under dozens of pen names. So it took the most dedicated of fans to track down their favorite author’s work, and finding books out of print for half a century could be an expensive and ultimately futile task.
This now has changed for the better. The Internet and eBooks has been a great way for authors to get their early work out to readers. Block, for example, has actively embraced new media, making his old titles available on eBooks, eBay, and even recently self-publishing three out-of-print Scudder titles and a collection of Scudder short stories, as well as writing an extensive blog.
And then, in the middle of the last decade, a new publishing house called Hard Case Crime came into existence dedicated to keeping the best pulp fiction alive. Block allowed five of his out-of-print novels to be published by Hard Case. Block had one of the first Hard Case titles. And now comes two more.
But unlike an eBook, Hard Case Crime really does it right in giving readers a full taste of the pulp experience. STRANGE EMBRACE / 69 BARROW STREET is published in the Ace Doubles format. Back in the day, Ace Books would publish two books at a time in what was called tête-bêche binding. That meant that two books were bound head to tail, so you had to turn over the first in order to read the second. And with STRANGE EMBRACE / 69 BARROW STREET, you also get two front covers with brand new pulp art by the legendary pulp artist Robert McGinnis. And the covers are attractive and designed to draw the reader in; they’re difficult to ignore.
69 BARROW STREET is a devastating look at Greenwich Village in the early 1960s. Ralph Lambert is a painter whose life has seriously gone off the rails. Ralph describes the Village: “The artists are long gone, although the streets are still cluttered with phonies who sketch charcoal studies of tourists at two to five dollars a throw. The writers are long gone, although there are still the ones who live on unemployment and peck at typewriters, pretending to be writers but incapable of writing anything more complex than their own names…Only the dregs remain…And the Sick Ones --- not junkies or queers necessarily, but sick, twisted, perverted men and women out on a hell-for-leather hunt for kicks, for something new and something different.”
Of course, Lambert just happens to be living with the worst of them, Stella James, who he describes as a “tigress” but who just might be the devil. When she throws a marijuana party, it was, according to Ralph, “the kind of party that made a Roman orgy look like a garden party on Long Island by comparison.” This was not the kind of party Americans were watching at that time taking place every week on “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” which began airing the same year 69 BARROW STREET came out. This book is a wild ride, and Block creates plenty of suspense and characters you can’t help but root for.
Speaking of television, STRANGE EMBRACE was written to be a tie-in with a TV show from 1959-1960 called “Johnny Midnight,” which starred Edmond O’Brien, who we fans of film noir all know and love from a movie called D.O.A. Hollywood being then what it still is today, the program was cancelled before the novel came out. But the book is a terrific example of one of the earliest detective novels written by Block. And why the use of the pen name, Ben Christopher? Block writes in a new afterword: “I don’t remember what I was thinking at the time, but my guess is that it had something to do with the publisher. Beacon was a pretty cheesy house, a second rate publisher of soft-core erotica, and who would put his name on a Beacon book?”
In the world of the pulps, to survive, writers had to write a lot and very fast, and not be too particular about where their work appeared, as long as they had work. Work was the key. And what men like Block and Westlake and the late great Ed McBain got from the pulps was a first class education in how to write great fiction that readers would respond to.
As somebody who got in on the last days of the pulp’s descendants --- the glossy men’s magazines --- I got a bit of that education in nonfiction writing. And the money was never great, but the checks cleared every month and was enough to keep you living and writing, something that has gotten much harder, if not downright impossible, online.
But writers write no matter what, or they do something else. 69 BARROW STREET was written under the pen name "Sheldon Lord." Block writes in the afterword: “Ages and ages ago, that was. I don’t know that I expected to be around so many years later, but I’ll tell you this: I never thought for a moment that Sheldon Lord would still be with us, or that anybody on earth would actually be reading 69 BARROW STREET in a year starting with 2.”
And thanks to another wonderful job by Hard Case Crime, we get to read these two books in 2012. They give us a portrait of a great writer starting to master his craft. These are two great reads in one package with two tremendous covers.
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on June 8, 2012