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.
Block's protagonist is a halfway decent guy who starts to feel twinges of conscience even before his plans come to full fruition, but he's no match for Joyce, who forces him to go through with the set-up. Even the appearance of a "good" woman, blonde elementary school teacher Barbara, isn't sufficient to keep Bill from following the path to noir-y disaster.
With its 220-pages of no-nonsense prose, Cards is a speedily diverting read. Though not as dense in its characterization as Block would later get with his hardboiled Matthew Scudder novels (Eight Million Ways to Die, A Long Line of Dead Men, others), you can see elements in Maynard's characterization that the writer would more fully examine ten years later in the Scudder books.
Perhaps I was cued to do so by Block's later perceptive and personalized treatment of recovering alcoholics (e.g., When the Sacred Ginmill Closes), but Maynard's steady relationship to drink and tavern life, in particular, seems particularly prescient. (After a scene in which he attempts to drown his doubts at a Polish tavern, he describes himself as "drunk enough to have trouble fitting the key into the car's ignition, but still sober enough to drive it once I had the key business mastered" – a drunkard's formulation, if ever there was one.)
Lucky at Cards is no noir classic: just a solid piece of genre fiction from a guy who ten years down the road would be producing great novels and a wonderful find for Hard Case Crime. (If you're wondering, it ends with a satisfactory card-playing showdown; only it's with gin rummy, not five-card stud.) I'm embarrassed to admit that Cards is the first of this specialty line's recovered crime paperbacks that I've read, but it definitely won't be the last.