As with any good paperback, the Chuck Pyle cover to Lawrence Block's 1964 novel Lucky at Cards (Hard Case Crime Books) is what snagged my eyes: the image of a too-knowing dame in a form-revealing dress, cigarette in one hand and the ace of spades in the other, yet another upturned ace falling and casting a shadow over a fulsome breast. "He handled cards like a master," the front cover text teases, "BUT COULD HE HANDLE HER?" Well, just one look at that woman, and you already know what the answer is.
As a poker playin' pappy myself (I know without looking at the cheat card which is the better hand — a straight or a flush — and I've been known to take home upwards of twenty dollars from a monthly geezer's poker night), I was hooked.
I've read and enjoyed a good amount of Block's novels over the years. Like Donald A. Westlake, he's a skillful pro in the crime novel biz who hit it biggest alternating two series — one a lightweight crime caper set, the second a more gritty hardboiled series — though, like Westlake, he started out writing twisty short stories and paperback quickies in the fifties and sixties. The man's a master at first-person narration without a lot of metaphorical filigree, and at recreating the voices of plain-speaking, slightly damaged tough guys.
Cards' flawed protagonist is a professional cardsharp named Bill Maynard. Drummed out of the Windy City when he's caught palming cards by a bunch of hard guys, Maynard lands in an unnamed burg where he quickly latches onto a group of poker-playing country clubbers. Chief among these is lawyer Murray Rogers, whose spouse quickly picks up the fact that Bill is a "card mechanic." Wife Joyce is, of course, the woman on the cover: ripe "with hooker's hips and queen-sized breasts and a belly that had just the right amount of bulge to it." Yearning to escape her bourgeois life, she seduces Maynard and persuades him to concoct a plot that'll take her husband out of the picture.
Raised a magician's son and accustomed to years of doing sleight of hand as a cardsharp, Maynard concocts an overly clever scheme to frame the lawyer for an imaginary murder. The plot — as Block knows we know — is so rickety that, instead of wondering whether the duo will get away with it, we primarily read Cards to see if Bill will survive once his house o' cards inevitably collapses.