Strange Embrace/69 Barrow Street
by Lawrence Block
Cover Artist: Robert McGinnis
Review by Don Metzler
Subterranean Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9781596064898
Date: 31 May 2012 List Price $30.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK
The blankets were bunched up at the foot of the bed. A sheet covered the mattress. Elaine James lay on top of the bed on her back. She was nude.It is the night before the cast and production crew of the play A Touch of Squalor are to leave New York for two weeks of out-of-town rehearsals, and off-Broadway theatrical producer Johnny Lane has found his leading lady murdered. Johnny immediately phones his friend on the homicide squad, Lieutenant Sam Haig, then sits down to numbly await the arrival of the police.
But at this point there is nothing that anyone can do for Elaine James, her throat cut from ear to ear. And there may be little that Johnny can do to salvage his stage production. His ingénue star-to-be is now permanently out of the picture. And to further complicate matters, Jan Vernon, another actress in the production, comes to Johnny with news of threatening phone calls that she has been receiving. It seems that someone doesn’t want A Touch of Squalor to ever open. But who? And why?
This re-issue volume contains two novels by Lawrence Block, Strange Embrace and 69 Barrow Street. Both were originally published in the early 1960s, when Block was writing mostly hard-boiled crime fiction. Strange Embrace was written as a tie-in novel to the short-lived Johnny Midnight television series, although in the novel Johnny’s last name was changed from Midnight to Lane when the TV show was cancelled before the book could be released.
The second novel contained in this volume, 69 Barrow Street, was written for an assignment Block received from a pulp fiction publisher who marketed erotic novels. The teaser line on the book’s cover reads, "At the intersection of sin and madness..." and this is a fairly accurate description of 69 Barrow Street. The setting is Greenwich Village of the late 1950s and early 1960s, a setting with which Lawrence Block was intimately familiar. Sex and drugs have replaced the art scene that had been associated with the Village in earlier decades. Junkies and cheap whores now haunt the streets and alleys. While the sex scenes depicted are comparatively mild by today’s standards, this book would have been fairly racy stuff in 1960, stopping just short of being classified as out-and-out pornography. But there are also some descriptions of acts of violent depravity that would not be considered tame in any decade, and this book should probably not be recommended for readers who may be faint of heart.
Both of these novels will provide interesting reading for fans of mystery and suspense, not only as examples of Lawrence Block’s early writing style, but also as first class examples of the hard-boiled, edgy crime fiction that was typical of the 1950s and early 60s.