Friday, February 02, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #33: The Girl With the Deep Blue Eyes by Lawrence Block

Noir doesn't have to be about sex. But it's usually a strong part of the mix -- violence and corruption and moral weakness need to have something to give them spark, and noir traditionally uses the femme fatale for that.

(Utterly parenthetically: I'd love to see more female-focused noir, with women main characters drawn into trouble by irresistible men -- or women, I guess, but that would tend to fall into the same woman-as-temptress channels as the traditional male-oriented noir. I bet books like that already exist, but I don't know them.)

When you can't show sex directly, that can make it hotter, if the creator is any good. Movies still get the benefit of this, since major actors are generally unwilling to engage in explicit on-screen sex with their co-stars, but written noir can be as explicit as it wants to be these days, for good or bad.

The Girl With the Deep Blue Eyes is a noir novel. It has a lot of sex in it. The sex is described, but not pornographically. (Like Whizzer White, I don't have a hard-and-fast rule for what counts as porn, but the rule of thumb I'm using here is that it's not porn if the scene is over too quickly to be rhythmically admired to completion. There are body parts in this book, and they do bump up against each other, but the point isn't to loving describe every moment of that bumping, but instead to use the sex to show us who these people are, how they interact, what they do.)

Lawrence Block began his career with sex novels, back in the late '50s, when he was a college student. He moved on from there to a long career in the various fields of mysteries and thrillers -- with excursions elsewhere -- with books that generally avoided detail about his main characters' genitalia. But for this 2015 novel -- packaged just like the same publisher's long-running reissues of Block's early work, as if deliberately to confuse his fans [1] -- Block reached back to those early-career noir plots, and, I can only guess, decided to take a run at it again with a modern attitude towards writing about sex. (Perhaps the most obvious comparison is to Block's Grifter's Game, originally published in 1961 and reprinted by Deep Blue Eyes's publisher as their very first book in 2004.)

Doak Miller is an ex-NYPD cop, divorced from his wife and living somewhere in central Florida, mostly on his pension and somewhat on bits of work he picks up with his new PI license. The local sheriff has thrown him some work before, and throws him some more: an informant says that Lisa Otterbein, the younger wife of a local minor real-estate magnate, is shopping around for a hit man. Doak's willing to pretend to be that hit man for a few bucks, and so he gets a wire and sets up the meeting.

Of course this is noir, so he falls for Lisa. And, at first, he's fine with just having talked her out of having her husband killed. But, before long, they both have good and sufficient reasons why the bastard needs to die. Only thing is, if a husband dies, the wife is the first suspect, no matter how he dies. And if she was publicly thinking about killing him recently, well, nobody can stand that level of police scrutiny.

But maybe Doak can figure out a way. And maybe he'll decide he really likes killing.....

Again, this is noir, though it's Block-style noir -- his characters are always a bit talky and his books driven by dialogue as much as action. And his people are more genre-savvy at this far end of his career: they're smart and sneaky and cunning and informed. And Block has written so many plots that he's not interested in doing the standard one, with the obvious ending. Which makes this really good noir, rich and taut and soaked in sex. I didn't realize it was a brand-new book by one of my favorite writers: if you made the same error, you're in for a treat.

[1] There is a "First Publication Anywhere!" line on the cover. But Hard Case, the publisher in question, has published a large number of rediscovered books -- ones written decades ago and left unpublished for whatever reason -- using that same language. If I had been the marketer, I would have suggested wording like "His Brand-New Novel."

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