Grifter’s Game is a taut crime thriller with one helluva bizarre twist ending. Joe Marlin, a low-level grifter, happens to steal a suitcase that he later discovers contains a massive amount of heroin. Enter Mona, drop dead gorgeous and married to an older, wealthy man. Joe and Mona fall in love and discover that they have something in common — they both want Mona’s husband dead. By some wild coincidence the suitcase that Joe stole is Mona’s husband’s. Knowing that his life will be worthless if Mona’s husband finds out that he stole the heroin, Joe and Mona hatch a plan that will get Joe off the hook and living happily ever after with Mona.
It’s a complex set-up, but Block is more than up to the task, guiding us from back alleys to plush estates; from New York to Las Vegas. You know what’s going to happen almost from the beginning, but the genius of Block is to give you the expected and then pull the rug out and deliver an ending you could never see coming.
I don’t want to give away the ending, but I do want to address it. Part of what makes Block’s novels so compelling is his ability to draw you into the seediest situations, forcing you to not only identify with the characters, but to like them and even cheer for them as they do things that are morally wrong. You know you shouldn’t, but Block can make a character that would be a villain in another story likable and human. His use of the first person narrative draws you even deeper into the story, almost making you and Joe one and the same, so that it’s not just Joe committing unspeakable crimes, but the reader vicariously through Joe. You can see why he’s doing what he’s doing and most of the time you can’t see any other way out. And even if you can, the characters are developed and written so tight, believable, and consistant that the decisions that they make (good and bad) are the only decisions they could make.
This relates to the ending in a couple of ways, as two characters bring the story to a close the only way it can close. And these characters that we’ve come to know and like make decisions that are still surprising and horrifying, revealing the true character behind the narrator’s straightforward personna. He’s changed over the course of the story and even after the final word has been written, you know what the inevitable outcome will be.
Grifter’s Game is a fast-paced, intricately plotted novel. The writing, characters, and situations make for a very quick and satisfying read. But where The Girl With The Long Green Heart (also by Block) left me speechless, Grifter’s Game left me hollow. And maybe that was the point, because when the story is over, the reader ends up the same place that Joe does.