Lucky at Cards by Lawrence Block

Originally published in 1964 as The Sex Shuffle under the pseudonym Sheldon Lord.
Republished as Lucky at Cards under Block’s own name in 2007.

On the mend after getting run out of Chicago, professional cardsharp Bill Maynard is hungry for some action – but not nearly as hungry as Joyce Rogers, the tantalizing wife of Bill’s latest mark. Together they hatch an ingenious scheme to get rid of her husband. But in life as in poker, the other player sometimes has an ace up his sleeve…

Bill Maynard left Chicago in a hurry and with a busted jaw after being caught cheating at cards in a high stakes game. He arrives in a small town, checks into a hotel he won’t be able to pay for and gets a dentist to fix up his teeth. As he ends his treatment he casually mentions he would like to get in on a friendly game of poker and is invited along to the home of Murray Rogers, a wealthy lawyer who has a weekly game.

The players are not prepared for Bill who wins more than enough to settle his bills. During the game he meets Joyce, Murray’s wife, who startles him when she obliquely references the tricks he’s pulling. The next day she surprises him again when she calls on him at his hotel and lays her own cards on the table. She wants rid of her husband but to keep his money and she thinks Bill will be the man to help her…

I picked up Lucky at Cards because I was in the mood for something quick and pulpy. My concentration has been shot this past week thanks to fighting off a bout of Covid and so I needed a read that would keep my attention. It turned out to be just what the doctor ordered…

The premise of the book in which a drifter and a married woman hatch a plan to rid themselves of the obstacles to being together may be a familiar one but there is nothing wrong with that. Particular when, as here, it comes with a few unexpected story beats. For one thing, Bill and Joyce’s plan isn’t as simple as killing Murray.

I do not plan on describing said plan because part of the fun here is in seeing Bill set it up and trying to work out what exactly he has in mind. The reader will be aware of the parameters including that Murray has to be kept alive as should he die the money will all pass to Joyce’s two stepdaughters, cutting her out of the picture. While the reader should not expect to be completely surprised, I enjoyed seeing it come together and trying to figure out exactly how it would end up going wrong.

As you might expect for a book with a card shark for its protagonist, there are a number of games of poker and bridge which could so easily have become tedious. Instead Block does a great job of explaining what you need to know from the progress of a game to the tricks being employed to cheat the other players to follow what is happening without it ever becoming burdensome. Indeed, a few of the card games are downright thrilling. More on one of those in a moment.

I also felt Block did a good job of establishing and developing a set of themes throughout the book. One of these is to do with Bill’s background – a failed career as a stage magician – and the conflict he feels about whether he wants to roam or settle down in an area. Bill’s thoughts on that issue do seem to evolve quite organically as the novel progresses and they were one of the reasons I felt that the character showed a pleasing (and perhaps surprising) amount of development over the course of the two hundred pages. I think it’s that sense that Bill, in spite of his many flaws, does have a hopeful side to his character that makes you likely to root for him and makes his journey one the reader may well invest in.

While Bill is easily the best developed character in the piece, I thought Murray, the target, was well drawn and becomes more interesting as the story progresses. His actions are sometimes a little unexpected yet fit his character perfectly, making him feel quite a credible figure.

The two female characters, Joyce and Barb, felt satisfying to me in the way in which they are utilized and developed within the story. The former is a femme fatale but after making a memorable introduction during the card game and the subsequent proposal scene at Bill’s hotel, the character never makes quite the same impact again, mostly featuring in quick hook-up scenes and to once again push him to act. Later in the story I feel her perspective on what has happened is forgotten completely and I found her involvement in the resolution to be surprisingly minimal.

Barb is perhaps a more fleshed out character in terms of having identifiable wants and desires but I won’t argue with those who find her a frustrating figure. I certainly had moments where I wished she would act with a little more self-respect. It possibly doesn’t help that much of what both characters are used for is to feature in the book’s frequent erotic scenes (the book’s original title, The Sex Shuffle, was pretty apt). I do appreciate though that Barb is at least afforded some emotional engagement and consideration, even if I personally find some of her choices somewhat baffling.

The piece builds quite well towards its final act, a thrilling card game with some really high stakes. While some parts of the plot will likely be anticipated, Block does manage to deliver a few fun complications along the way that keep things interesting. I found those final few chapters particularly gripping and think he delivers a satisfying resolution to this pulpy, entertaining story.

The Verdict: Lucky at Cards is by no means a classic work but it offers an interesting and, in some regards, novel take on a noir standard (think Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice).

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