Mona by Lawrence Block (Gold Medal, 1961)
An early Block with quite a history. It’s been reprinted twice since its Gold Medal debut in 1961 — as Sweet Slow Death in 1986 from Jove, Mona in 1994 from Carroll & Graf, and as Grifter’s Game as the the first offering from Hard Case Crime in 2005. A lot of mileage for an old title that has now become somewhat a classic in 60s noir.
I read somewhere that Block had started this one as a Nightstand title, and $20 Lust as something for Gold Medal or Beacon, but things got switched around, and when his agent Henry Morrison at Scott Meredith read the manuscript, he concluded it was good enough for Gold Medal and under Block’s own name. Thus, Mona became the first paperback Block had his name on the cover, instead of Lesley Evans, Sheldon Lord, or Andrew Shaw.
There’s a Mona, a dead ex-wife, in $20 Lust (aka Cinderella Sims), talked about earlier, and a number of Monas show up in Block’s Andrew Shaw books. She’s like Harry Whittington’s Cora, popping up often in different, same soul.
Block’s many Monas are just no good…tramps, cheats, and liars all…
[Side note: he same year, 1961, Block also published with Gold Medal Death Pulls a Double-Cross, also under his own name. It was here that Block started to move away from the sleazecore and begin his career as a crime noir writer.]
The narrator of Mona/Slow Sweet Death/Grifter’s Game is Joe Marlin: con man, grifter, gigolo, player, crook. He moves from hotel to hotel under different names, skipping out on the bill.
At the top, we find him in Philadelphia, moving in on a mark, a young woman whom he thinks has money, and she thinks he comes from her high society rich people’s circle. Talk of love and marriage, and he actually feels something, so when he confesses to her that he’s not a rich man, she freezes at his touch. Then she vanishes, cutting out on two months’ rent, and Joe realizes she was playing him, thinking he was a rich guy she could snag.
The world is full of grifters, full of liars all out for the game, the buck, the payday, he realizes.
At a train station, he lifts another man’s luggage for the clothes and whatever else there is, and checks into a hotel by the beach. There are a lot of nice clothes in the luggage, that help him fit in among the ritzy.
Lying out on the beach, he meets a young woman, Mona Brossard, who tells him she’s unhappily married to an older man in his 50s. They make a date. They have sex. The sex is fitting for a Nightstand book, perhaps when Block was still writing this one with Nightstand in mind.
Then he finds a huge chunk of uncut, raw heroin in the luggage, worth tens of thousands, if nit hundreds on the open market after it’s cut and processed. Then he realizes the name on the luggage matches the name of Mona’s husband…and then she finds his luggage when he’s asleep and she says, “What are you doing with my husband’s luggage?!”
Here we think: okay, how can this be? A wild coincidence. Joe should think the same but he figures it crazy luck, and he’s too in lust/love with Mona to think right, to realize, like the other girl, he’s being played.
Only later in the book, when we do find out he’s a patsy, that we can go back and see all the clues, where the heroin and the heroine converge. Mona saw him take the luggage an she followed him, with a plan in mind, and intentionally met him on the beach…
Oh, Joe gets sucked in, he kills her husband and makes it look like a gangster hit, he plants the raw heroin in the man’s office so the cops will think the murder was over drugs…and then Mona vanishes, she sends Joe $3,000 to his hotel in Miami instead of showing up for love and happiness…
But Joe is crafty. Through the real estate agent selling the widow Mona’s house, he finds out she’s in a hotel in Lake Tahoe. Joe is good at social engineering, at getting info from people.
In Tahoe, she has a handsome man at her side, a hired lover it seems.
He confronts her…
What can she say?
“Are you going to kill me too, Joe?”
Joe gets away with murder, he isn’t writing his story from a prison cell or before his suicide as some of these crime books.
At the blog Somebody Dies, the reviewer talks about the Hard Case reprint and notes:
A book like this could have ended in any of a dozen ways, all of them somewhat predictable, but Block comes up with one that absolutely knocks you to the floor…
Indeed, the last two chapters are truly dark, sadistic, and cathartic in a twisted way — the revenge every man wants for a woman who lies, double-crosses, cheats or hurts. Mona has hurt Joe badly with her con game, using her vagina and her words of love and promise of money to turn him into a killer.
So he gets her back — the heroin and the heroine converge. Should I spoil it for you? I won’t. It is indeed a slow sweet death, one he embraces as inevitable for her and later himself.
This little novel wraps up in such a dark way that I was totally surprised, and delighted that this one did not have a patent predictable ending.
And solidifies why I have become a Larry Block fan this year.
Highly recommended, boys and girls and tawdry readers of sleaze. The Gold Medal edition might be pricey to acquire, but you can find the Hard Case one used for $1 out there.