The Girl With the Long Green Heart, A Classic Grift by Lawrence Block

 

Lawrence Block

Lawrence Block

Lawrence Block is an old-school, pulp-era author who has been writing crime fiction since the 50’s.  He has published multiple titles under his own name, as well as a multiplicity of novels under at least nine other names.  The Girl With The Long Green Heart is the only novel I’ve read by Block, but if it is any indication of the quality of the rest of his work, then Block’s reputation as a premier crime fiction author has been justly earned.  The book offers a wickedly clever and highly stylized narrative center on a grift being pulled off by a veteran con-man who has agreed to do one last job before going straight.  The story reads like a smooth screen play that would be well suited for the likes of George Clooney or Brad Pitt, but the narrative is not simply fluff.  It has existentialist and feminist overtones while linking both to an attack on capitalism.  The novel offers some engaging themes and that are made easy to digest because of Block’s entertaining, engrossing, and quickly paced narrative execution. It is simply put, a model in story telling within the genre.

 

 

HCCTheGirlWithTheLongGreenDress

The Hard Case Crime version of the novel featuring art work from Robert McGinnis.

The women in crime fiction are often relegated to one-dimensional roles in which they are hypersexualized and employed as signifiers that define masculinity.  In Block’s work, however, there is more depth than one might imagine.  Block, who himself wrote under female pseudonyms, creates an enigmatic woman for his title role.  Evelyn Stone, who is the girl with the long green heart, is marginalized by the men of the novel, and seen as a liability by her male counterparts that are organizing the grift.   Stone, though, rejects traditional feminine roles.  She tells Johnny Hayden, the novel’s narrator, that she and her frist husband “went to New York to play house” and that she “was the mommy and he was the man who took the suds out of the automatic washer” (82).  This template did not satisfy her, however, as she did not “want to spend the rest of [her] life with a nice boy who needed someone to wipe his nose” (83).  Rather than the caretaker of a man, Stone wants to be an autonomous being with her own character, and as Hayden describes, Stone is more than capable of being independent, as he notes that “She was very damned good for an amateur” and that “She had the brains for” working a grift (89).  This is mentioned several times throughout, but it is at the climax of the novel that the full range of Stone’s capabilities are on display.  SPOILER ALERT!!!  When Hayden and his partner Doug Rance arrive to a hotel to find their mark, Wallace Gunderman, they find that he is dead and that Stone not only took the money he had brought, but had secretly married him and framed them for his murder so that she could inherit his entire fortune.  While two experienced conmen worked together against a successful businessman, Stone proved that as a lone woman she was capable of pulling a con off on all three of the men.  Some might argue that this portrays women as dishonest and disloyal, in the context of a crime novel where the protagonist is a conman, this kind of performance is seen as elite professionalism that even the men admire.

 

One of the covers from an early printing of the novel.

One of the covers from an early printing of the novel.

Stone’s lack of loyalty is justified to a degree in the novel.  Her first husband seemed to expect her to simply take care of him, though given that Stone is an unreliable narrator, we cannot be sure that this presentation is accurate.  Hayden and Rance were both interested in taking advantage of her position and desperately needed her for the job, but as is the often the case in the work world, there was no pay equality for the woman.  Though her role in the grift was perhaps the most important, she received the smallest share: a mere 17.5% in a pot split three ways.  Obviously these grifters never heard of equal pay for equal work.  Stone herself also frames her relationship in equity terms.  Given that she had been involved with Gunderman romantically while he was married, she felt as though she were on a par with a prostitute as he was paying for her expenses and expected her to put up with his whims: “I was costing him less than if he bought it a shot at a time from a cheap streetwalker” (79).  This is reinforced by Stone when she notes that the prize of the grift has not change the nature of her relationship, merely ensured that she would be getting paid more, bumping her up from a ‘cheap whore’, to an ‘expensive whore’ (81).  Her idea of marriage, then, was framed in a similar way as she suggested marrying Gunderman would make her “like a whore with a license” (137).  Again, because she is an unreliable narrator, not all of this can be taken as sincere, but there does seem to be some truth in framing marriage as institutionalized prostitution.  Regardless, of the degree of sincerity, it is clear that the Stone was marginalized by the men around her and that she was justified in seeking her independence.

 

Another novel by Block re-published by Hard Case Crime.

Another novel by Block re-published by Hard Case Crime.

Considering that three of the four main characters are men, the novel is a hypermasculine narrative, and given that most of the novel centers on dialogues between the men, the novel’s construction of femininity if formed through their conversations and the internal dialogue of the male narrator.  Hayden, for his part, seems to be a little more progressive than the typical narrator found in crime fiction.  When Stone asserts her autonomy, for instance, or speaks to other men, Hayden recognizes that her body is her own as he states: “I didn’t own her” (108).  This is a far cry from the jealous boyfriend who asserts ownership of a woman when he feels that her behaviour is not in concert with his own desires.  After Stone is compelled to sleep with Gunderman to keep up the pretence to the grift, Hayden does not pressure her for sex, though he had been looking forward to it, recognizing that she may not wish to indulge in the sex act after being debased.  Here Hayden, rather than pushing sex on her as a kind of territorial pissing,  is trying to empathize with her and place himself in her frame of mind, respecting her feelings.  And when Hayden fanaticizes about Stone, he does not frame her in a sexual manner, but rather romanticizes about how they can share intimate moments together, with the two of them “on top of a Colorado mountain, walking hand in hand” (91). The fantasy does not debase or sexualize her, merely pictures an intimate and private moment shared between the two.

 

HCCADietOfMuch of the novel seems to be a construction around Hayden existentialist struggle to find his true identity.  After a long stay at San Quinten, Hayden has been scared into taking a straight job.  His motivations are rooted in existentialist theory.  Existentialism dictates that humans make decisions based on subjective interpretation and are often motivated by anxiety or fear.  Hayden decision to secure a ‘legit’ job is not because he enjoys it, but rather because he is afraid of going to prison.  Hayden believes, then, that just because he has committed crimes in the past does mean that he is obliged to commit them in the future, but his new life goals are stunted by the economic facticity of Hayden’s life.  To buy the roadhouse Hayden wants to operate, he must save money, but the amount of time it would take to save that money, transforms “all the plans to the approximate level of prison dreams” (40).  After Hayden calculates how long it will take to save the money he needs to start his new life, he realizes it will take ten years and states that when you “See it that way… the window grows bars and the door locks itself and the eight-dollar room turns itself into a cell” (47).  Jean-Paul Sartre famous said that “Life begins on the other side of despair”.  For Hayden, this despair is caused by the capitalist facticity of his environment that holds him back from discovering his identity.  This causes Hayden to view his life outside of prison on parity terms with his life inside of prison, and as Joe Orton wrote in his play What The Butler Saw, “When the punishment for the guilty or innocence is the same it becomes an act of logic to commit the crime”.  This was coincidently said by a character named Rance, who shares a name with Hayden’s partner.  Because Hayden sees himself as still being in a prison, the threat of prison is not a factor and he returns to his former ways.  At the end of the novel, rather that returning to the straight life, he will continue to work grifts with Rance because that is both what he enjoys and what he is good at, concluding that “a man must be what he is and do what he is geared to do.  He cannot permit himself to be conned out of what he truly is.  Not by the scare of a prison cell.  Not by the smell of a woman, or the teasing of a dream” (251).  This reads like an existentialist epiphany for Hayden who has finally found his authentic self and aims to be true to that.

 

HCCLuckyAtCardsThere is also an element of performance that runs throughout the novel drawing on concepts relating to Jean Baudrillard’s concept of the ‘Real’, which is of course closely link with existentialist concepts of the authentic self.  When setting up their faux office, Hayden and Rance agree that their office “must look more like what it’s pretending to be than the real article” (64), framing the office space as an example of hyperrealism.  The office is filled with sign and signifiers that are associated with business and prove convincing to Gunderman.  As part of this performance, Rance plays the part of ‘old money’ well enough to convince a man who is old money, or at least isn’t nouveau riche.  After meeting Rance, Gunderman tells Hayden that “the English say it takes three generations to come up with a gentleman” and that one can  “can always tell whether or not you’re dealing with someone who’s… quality”, before going onto say that he’d “be a damned fool if [he] didn’t know there’s a difference between a man like Rance and a man whose father cleaned out toilets for a living” (180). Rance’s father, though, was a member of the working class, so the scenario demonstrates that the preconceptions we have about wealth and class are not examples of authentic human identity, but merely performable traits.  This construction of what life should be like even creeps up when Hayden is fantasizing about his future with Stone as he imagines the two of them enjoying nature in a scene “as fresh and breathlessly natural as a commercial for mentholated cigarettes”, before concluding that this is “The American Dream, stock footage number 40938” (91).  Even Hayden recognizes that his own construct of romance is one that is fabricated, which is likely why it fails to materialize.  As the saying goes, ‘expectation is the mother of disappointment’, but only because it is a construct that does not work in concert with reality.

 

Another painting from Robert McGinnis, who illustrates many of the covers for the novels from Hard Case Crime.

Another painting from Robert McGinnis, who illustrates many of the covers for the novels from Hard Case Crime.

There are a couple of lines that Block manages to weave into his work that have profound implications.  In one scene when Stone and Hayden are in her apartment together, she turns the radio on.  A newscast is heard in which “someone clattered about some new foreign crisis”.  Stone “turned the dial and found some music” (145).  This is one of those simply lines that one might read through without even noticing.  It is a casual act, but it speaks volumes to character.  Stone does not care about a crisis in another part of the world, she cares only for her own amusement.  Like so many in the West, there is a preoccupation with the self and not others.  One would rather be distracted than hear about the pain and suffering of other people.  There is a wilful blindness present in Stone that is present in many.  This is like the scene in Hotel Rwanda where the reporter played by Joaquin Phoenix notes that people in America will ignore the news and keep eating their supper.  Likewise, people often buy products from stores that are stocked with merchandise made in sweat shops, but few people seem to care enough acknowledge what is going on around them and would rather distract themselves as they remain willfully blind, as Stone does when she turns off the news cast in favour of music.  The line can even be read as encouraging the reader to consider how they are spending their time, as anybody who gleams over this line is reading crime fiction, a genre that is general viewed as one that is meant to entertain and distract, not challenge readers on social issues.

 

Another painting showcasing the talents of Robert McGinnis.

Another painting showcasing the talents of Robert McGinnis.

Another line speaks to the capitalist impact on the environment.  Gunderman boasts to Hayden about how he made his fortune, stating that during the Depression, he “started buying land like a crazy man.  Scrap land and wasteland and farm land that wasn’t paying its way and timber land with the hardwood growth all cut and gone” (23).  It is curious to note that the forest regions whose hardwood trees have been cut down is juxtaposed with the farm land that ‘wasn’t paying its way’.  This line is another that could be read over quickly and dismissed, but it speaks to broad issues of how the capitalist system interacts with nature.  Captains of industry who have no foresight often exhaust resources with no concern for the future.  Though they might assume that clearing a forest has little impact on surrounding areas, the forest litter is integral collecting water after rain fall and allowing it to seep into the ground, thereby keeping the ground moist.  Rapid deforestation has often been link with draught all around the globe, especially in places like India the need forests to collect water during the monsoon season.  After the captains of industry have exhausted the forests without replenishing them, the regions soil will struggle to maintain its moisture and thereby leave the land infertile.  The passage alludes to a link to the two by juxtaposing them, suggesting that the maintenance of the environment is crucial to ensuring the fertility of the land.

 

 

Another novel from Hard Case Crime.

Another novel from Hard Case Crime.

Block is a master craftsman who knows how to hook a reader.  The structure of his narrative allows the reader pick up on the red flags that the narrator misses, but doesn’t reveal so much that the ending is too obvious, while his content allows readers looking for a deeper engagement to find it.  From the existentialist and feminist overtones, to a monolog on gun regulations where Hayden suggests only “bank robbers… killers… [and[ thickheaded heavies need” guns (196).  There is a passage where Hayden invokes a homophobic slur that is a little jarring (166) and another shortly thereafter where he refers to a young boy as a “yassuh-boss kid”/shoe shiner (168), neither of which contribute to plot or charater and both of which weigh down on a narrative, but such language is common among works written at the time.  The rest of the narrative, though, is enjoyable.  The paratext, as is always the case with books published by Hard Case Crime, is fantastic with a beautiful illustrative cover by Robert McGinnis painted in the spirit of pulp-era crime novels.  As for Block, he has a clear understanding of the genre and knows how to tell a story as well as anybody.  For those who enjoy crime fiction, and movies like Ocean’s Eleven, and The Sting, this is certain to provide a fun read that will satiate your appetite for a good con.

 

Check out my reviews of other Hard Case Crime publications, such as The First Quarry and The Last Quarry by Max Allan Collins, Little Girl Lost, Songs Of Innocence, Branded Woman, and Murder Is My Business.  You may also like my reviews of pulp-era detective fiction such as  You Can’t Stop Me, The Name Is Jordan, Stamped For Murder, Pardon My Body and a host of novels by Carter Brown.  For updates and new posts, be sure to follow me on Twitter @LiteraryRambler.

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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