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).

The Vengeful Virgin by Gil Brewer

Originally Published 1958

What beautiful 18-year-old would want to spend her life taking care of an invalid? Not Shirley Angela. But that’s the life she was trapped in – until she met Jack.

Now Shirley and Jack have a plan to put the old man out of his misery and walk away with a suitcase full of cash. But there’s nothing like money to come between lovers – money, and other women…

The Vengeful Virgin is a pulp novel from the 1950s that on the face of it seems a little out of my reading comfort zone. The reason it jumped out at me though is that it is another example of my favorite subgenre, the inverted crime story and I came to it feeling somewhat optimistic based on my experiences with the other hard-boiled inverted stories I have reviewed recently.

The novel concerns a pair of lovers with an almost primal physical attraction to one another and their plot to kill the girl’s rich stepfather who is an invalid. The girl, eighteen year-old Shirley Angela, has been caring for him for three years and resents his demands. She knows that she is in line to receive a big inheritance from him but knows that with medical intervention he could live for ten years or longer.

When protagonist Jack Ruxton, a television installation engineer, first crosses paths with her she has already devised a crude plan to get rid of him. The two are instantly drawn to each other and she brings him in on the plan. He quickly expresses concern that her idea to have a television topple onto him would immediately be traced back to them and suggests his own plan…

Jack is far from a charming guy and is in some ways a little reminiscent of the male murderer in Roger Bax’s Disposing of Henry, another inverted story. This similarity extends right to the character’s casual description of Shirley as  someone who “…made you feel as if you wanted to rape her” and is attracted to her in part because of her youth. Their relationship is all kinds of problematic if the author’s intention is to titillate his reader as Jason John Horn notes in an essay he wrote about chauvinism and ableism in this novel. Be aware that essay does spoil some key plot developments!

I am on the fence about whether Brewer intends to appeal to that side of his readers here or not. If that was the aim I think he misses the mark in any case as those scenes, while frequent, do little to appeal to the reader’s senses. They do effectively establish the main character as a seedy, brutish man who uses the women in his life to fulfil his own desires whether physical or financial.

Shirley is cast as a mix of vixen and femme fatale. She certainly tempts Jack into committing a crime though he did not need much persuasion and she repeatedly expresses her desire for him. The characterization is not particularly complex and perhaps the one revelation that may have added a little punch is spoiled within the book, reducing the impact of a key moment within the novel’s conclusion.

Though Brewer’s characters feel a little flat, the plotting is a little more interesting. I was impressed with the idea that Jack comes up with for its relative simplicity and the scene in which the plan is carried out contains some wonderful moments of tension. Throughout the build up to that moment we are made aware of the danger they face and anticipate some of the things that might go wrong. These problems are foreshadowed very effectively and while I think it would be a stretch to say there are mystery elements here, the reader can try to work out how those elements will combine to cause their downfall.

While the reader will likely predict elements of the novel’s conclusion, I do think it contains some of the novel’s strongest imagery and dramatic moments. That sequence sums up the novel’s themes well and it feels like a logical and powerful resolution to the story.

Unfortunately the journey to that point underwhelms, particularly in the saggy middle of the tale where we wait for the pair to actually get on with committing their crime. Neither Jack nor Shirley are interesting or likeable enough to make their relationship compelling and there are no unexpected revelations or moments featuring them that may have made them more complex or interesting and might have helped to drive the story.

Though The Vengeful Virgin has some strong moments, not least its punchy ending, I think it never rises above its often flat, unpleasant characterizations and the slow pacing of the scenes in which the pair develop their plan. It is not badly written and it does have a few good ideas but the sometimes seedy tone (which, to be fair, is totally hinted at in its title) had little appeal for me.