Thursday, November 12, 2009

Game Is Simultaneously Outdated, Enduring

Chronological snobbery cuts both ways. Although the term is usually applied to those who dismiss arguments simply because they're old, it could also describe people who eschew new things because they happen to be, well, new. You see this equally in literature as well as logic. There's the one camp endlessly surfing Amazon for new releases, yearning to catch the Next Big Thing right from the get go, while the other sniffs at anything published after, say, the nineteenth century and views the Internet as a not-quite-necessary evil. Such a tendency to judge things based on their age is why books like Grifter's Game (an early effort by crime-writing veteran Lawrence Block) are so important: They're complex enough to force careful evaluation.

Joe Marlin has known a lot of women in his twenty-eight years, with very profitable results. Whether his marks happens to be idealistic young heiresses or needy (and wealthy) widows, Joe always finds a way to kiss them, bilk them and run, often with only the clothes on his back. While fleeing a failed seduction, he picks a bag at random from the luggage at the train station, figuring he can pawn it for a little dough. But among the shoes, slacks and shirts inside, he finds something else -- sixty cubic inches of pure heroin. Dazed by the discovery, Joe retreats to the beach for a little sun and surf, and that's where he meets Mrs. Mona Brassard, a blonde bombshell with a figure so lethal it ought to be registered with the police. One thing leads to another, and soon Joe and Mona are sharing a bed. It's a mutually enjoyable time, but there's one hitch: Mona wants to know why Joe has her husband's suitcase.

Game was originally published in 1961, and even proponents of classic crime stories have to admit that much of it hasn't aged well. References to bellhops, boardwalks and telephone switchboard operators date the novel, and wry jabs at yesterday's innovations fall flat when viewed in the light of the present."The car moved like a retarded child," grouses Joe during a drive. "It was further encumbered with automatic transmission, which keeps you from shifting gears at the proper time, and power steering, which is an invention designed to drive anyone out of his mind." But even with such anachronisms, the novel defies easy dismissal. Why? Well, Game features a conclusion as cold as a knife between the ribs and so black it makes you remember why they call it noir. It wouldn't be exaggerating to call it genre-defining. Indeed, it isn't the antiquated references that stick with you when you reach the final page, but a profound sense of dread and poignancy, one that may very well linger long after the titles on today's bestseller lists have slid into obscurity.

(Picture: CC 2009 by


Chestertonian Rambler said...

But automatic transmissions *still* make you shift at the wrong time! (And, for that matter, power steering is only necessary if your car is overly heavy. Test-drive an old Honda Civic, sometime.) It's an Evil Conspiracy, I tell you, put on by the League of Extraordinary Laziness.

And the Templars, of course. Always the Templars.

See, it's only genre-fiction that can inform you of these truths. Everyone else is in league with the Templars and the, er, League.

That's why you should only read genre-fiction pulps--or books scribbled down (often with pictures) in the time before the printing press took all the fun out of writing. :-D

Loren Eaton said...

My wife agrees with you. It's to the perpetual befuddlement of the League that I married someone who drives stick.

Post Script: We're Masons, by the way, not Templars. Just so you know.