“For a few minutes I just stood there and felt foolish. I’d picked up more than a wardrobe at the railway station. I’d picked up a fortune.” So says con man Joe Marlin upon discovering the suitcase he nabbed contained “sixty cubic inches of raw heroin” inside a sealed box. Not long after, he encounters the wife of the man who’s suitcase he stole. He falls for her hard. Together, they plot to kill her husband.
Sound familiar? This crime story shares the plot construct of James M. Cain’s novella, Double Indemnity, and his 1934 novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice. A man—be he a salesman, drifter, or grifter—falls in love with a femme fatale. They’re a perfect match, or so they think, except for her inconvient husband. Thus a decision is made to kill said husband.
The cover of Hard Case Crime’s recent re-issue depicts the murder perfectly. Illustrated by Chuck Pyle, this scene shows Joe shooting Mona Brassard’s husband, L. Keith Brassard. Really this isn’t a spoiler. The whole novel leads up to this murder, which occurs rather late in the story. The more intriguing question is whether Joe will be double-crossed by Mona and how. That is, after all, pro forma for this type of crime novel.
This plotline makes for classic Film Noir—that gritty, black-and-white genre of films from the mid-1940s and 1950s full of cynical attitudes and sexual frustrations. Though the Hays Code—the motion picture censor from the 1930 to 1968—would certainly disapprove of certain elements here. The novel’s ending in particular would never have made it passed the censors.
When we first meet Joe Marlin, he’s David Gavilan running up a tab at a fancy hotel with no intention of paying. When the manager broaches the subject of payment, Joe skips town and heads for Atlanitc City. Since he had to leave behind most of his belongings—so as not to arouse suspicions—he nabs a suitcase at the railway station. The intials on the case LKB spur his new alias, Leonard K. Blake. A name used before? In author Block’s first published story, “You Can’t Lose”, about a con artist, the narrator eventually gives us a name, Leonard Blake. Are they one and the same? Only the author could say for sure, but the narrative style and elements of both stories do suggest such a connection.
A chance meeting on the beach in Atlantic City introduces Mona. Coincidentally, the Brassards are staying at the same A. C. resort hotel as Joe, the Shelburne. Joe quickly realizes she’s the wife of the man who’s suitcase he stole, but he falls in love with her anyway. She’s unhappily married—of course—and apparently unaware of her husband’s business—the heroin trade. As their relationship grows, the plot to kill Keith takes shape.
After the murder, late in the book, Joe catches a Hitchcock film (I’d be curious to know which one; I suspect Psycho since it fits the time period), which prompts this insight: “I saw past the surface to the plot itself, and I saw that the plot was ludicrous–a web of preposterous coincidences held together by superior writing and acting and directing.” A key point perhaps?
Grifter’s Game is an enjoyable, fairly fast-paced story that intrigues you. Truly, the main mystery is trying to figure out how it will all end. Will the lovers get caught? Will Mona double-cross Joe? Or…? This one’s ending was a surprising, perhaps shocking, but quite fitting.
The novel was originally published under the title of Mona, but according to Hard Case Crime, the newly reissued paperback marks the first use of Grifter’s Game, Block’s intended title. The back cover of the Hard Case Crime edition includes an illustration of Mona’s eyes, a perfect glimpse of this femme fatale’s allure.
For earlier mentions of this novel on The Poisoned Martini, see these related posts here and here.