Hey, Sinner Man, Where’d You Go?

You’ve probably heard the song. It’s a spiritual, and it starts out something like this:

Hey sinner man, where you gonna run to?
Hey sinner man, where you gonna run to?
Hey sinner man, where you gonna run to?
All on that day . . .

In the verses that follow, we learn that ol’ Sinner Man has run to the north, the east, the south, and the west, to the rock and to the hill and to any number of other sites, and nowhere can he find a place to hide from divine judgment. Then he runs to the Lord, and that turns out to be the answer.

When you look at it like that, it sounds pretty lame, doesn’t it? I’m reminded of the truly awful actor in the truly dreadful showcase production of Hamlet. When some audience members walk out during the famous soliloquy, he breaks character and cries out, “Hey, don’t blame me — I’m not the one who wrote this shit!”

What I did write, however, was a crime novel I called Sinner Man. It was my first crime novel, though it was a long way from being my first published novel. (And it was also a long way from being my first published crime novel, as you’ll see.)

If memory serves (and I might point out that, if memory truly served, there’d be no need for me to write this piece or for you to read it), I wrote Sinner Man sometime in the winter of 1959–60. In the summer of 1957, after two years at Antioch College, I’d dropped out to take a job as an editor at Scott Meredith Literary Agency. I was there for a year and wrote and sold a dozen or so stories of my own during that time. Then I dropped in again, or tried to; I went back to Antioch, but by then I was writing books for Harry Shorten at Midwood and had sold a lesbian novel to Fawcett Crest, and I had more books and stories to write, and what the hell did I care about Paradise Lost or Humphry Clinker, let alone The Development of Physical Ideas? So at the end of the year, I went to New York and took a room at the Hotel Rio, where I wrote another book for Midwood and, as my first for Bill Hamling’s Nightstand Books, one I called Campus Tramp.

And then I dropped out again, but this time it was the school’s idea. “We think you would be happier elsewhere,” said the note from Student Personnel Committee, and who was I to say them nay? They got that one right, and I moved back to my parents’ house in Buffalo and went on writing.

And among the books I wrote, unlike my standing-order assignments for Midwood and Nightstand, was one I called Sinner Man.

Now the books I’d been writing were erotica, but the short stories I’d been writing and selling were crime fiction, and I’d had it in mind all along to move up to crime novels. (And then, of course, in the fullness of time, I would move up to the pinnacle of mainstream literary fiction, and all the girls who’d rejected me would want to kill themselves. Yeah, right.)

So I started writing about a thirty-something guy, in advertising or something corporate, married and living in Danbury, Connecticut. (I’m pretty sure it was Danbury. But I suppose it could have been Darien or even Hartford. Definitely Connecticut, though.) And one evening, possibly in the wake of an extra preprandial martini, he shoves his wife and she falls down and hits her head and, just like that, she’s dead.

Hey, these things happen.

So he reaches for the phone to call the police, and thinks maybe he should call his lawyer first, and decides that, rather than call anyone, what he really wants to do is Get Out of Dodge. (Except I think it was Danbury.)

He gets on a train and gets off in Buffalo. (That seemed logical to me. Half the time I got on a train, I wound up getting off in Buffalo. The other half the time, I got on in Buffalo and got off somewhere else. Never Danbury, however. As best I recall.)

And in Buffalo he’s faced with a problem. Like, how is he going to make a living, given that he’s wanted in Connecticut for uxoricide? His fingerprints aren’t on file, but they’ve got his name and photos of him, so he can’t walk into National Gypsum or Bethlehem Steel, plop down his Social Security card and his driver’s license, and apply for an executive position. What can he do that will enable him to live life off the grid? (That wasn’t an expression yet, off the grid, but it’s where he had to live.)

Well, how about organized crime? Gangsters wouldn’t ask to see ID. And if he acted like a gangster and hung out where the gangsters hung out, well, he might get killed if he rubbed someone the wrong way, but they weren’t gonna turn him in to the cops, were they?

So that’s what he did. And then the story just went on from there, though I can’t claim to remember what happened. I don’t know what his original name was or what new name he took for himself. I think there was a card game in the house of a guy named Berman. I think our hero fit in nicely with the gang and had a knack for criminality, and then there was a faction fight in the gang. Or something.

See, I really don’t remember a whole lot about the book. Danbury, Buffalo, gangsters, and Berman. And I’m not 100 percent sure about Berman.

I finished the book, and I sent it to Henry Morrison, who was my agent at Scott Meredith. He sent it around, and around it went, garnering the same sort of rejections everywhere. No end of editors said they liked the way I wrote and would be glad for a look at my next book. That was fine, but what I was hoping for was that one of them would want to buy this book, as it was the one I had for sale. But the consensus seemed to be that, while the writing was commendable, the book as a whole was not — and it went on making the rounds.

Meanwhile, I got married and moved back to New York, setting up housekeeping first on West 69th Street and then farther uptown on Central Park West. My father died, my daughter Amy was born, and in the spring of 1962 my wife and daughter and I moved back to Buffalo where we bought a house.

(The house was actually in a suburb called Tonawanda. In Thomas Perry’s dazzling series, his heroine Jane Whitefield lives in Tonawanda. So it’s possible to write good crime fiction set in western New York, even if I couldn’t seem to do it.)

By now I’d sold two crime novels, Grifter’s Game and Coward’s Kiss, to Fawcett Gold Medal. (They called the first one Mona and the second one Death Pulls a Doublecross. Hey, don’t get me started, okay?) And shortly after we’d settled into our house in Tonawanda, Henry sent Sinner Man to Random House, where Lee Wright was publishing my good friend Donald E. Westlake. Lee read the book and saw something there, and I got on a train (yeah, I did that a lot) and went to New York to discuss it with her.

Ah, if only life had an UNDO button. I went to Lee’s office and had this weird conversation with her, during which she suggested various odd turns the plot could take, and none of them made the slightest sense to me. I realized much later that she was just trying to get me thinking, doing what she could to trigger my own authorial imagination, but at the time I concluded that the woman was crazy. I wasn’t quite sure what she wanted me to do, but whatever it was, I didn’t see how I could do it.

So Henry put the book in a drawer, and that was that.

And then the day came when Henry told me he thought he could sell Sinner Man to Irwin Stein at Lancer Books. I’d have to enhance a couple of the sex scenes a bit, and I’d probably want to slap a pen name on it, but I could get a few bucks for the thing. A thousand? Fifteen hundred? Probably something like that.

I’m not sure exactly when this took place. It would have to have been at least a year after the debacle with Lee Wright, but before the spring of 1964, when I had a falling out with the Scott Meredith agency and they dropped me as a client. That’s not a very big window, but maybe Sinner Man could have slipped through it.

Or else it would have been in 1966 or 1967, by which time Henry had split with Scott and set up on his own and I’d become his client. “Remember Sinner Man? Do you happen to have a copy around? Because I think I can sell it to Irwin Stein.” That’s how the conversation might have gone.

Whenever it was, I was fine with it, and performed whatever sexing up the book required, and cashed whatever check came my way. I just hope I drank up the money, instead of pissing it away on food and clothing.

Now here’s my question:

What the hell happened to the book?

I never saw a copy. That’s not as remarkable as it may sound, because I hardly ever received author’s copies of the books I wrote back in the day. I went to stores often enough that I was able to pick up a copy of most of them. (Well, two copies; I’d strip one of them and mount the cover on my office wall.) But I never saw this one and would have had trouble finding it, because I never knew what title it was published under and now can’t even be sure what pen name I hung on it.

I think I used Sheldon Lord, which was a name I tacked on to my efforts for Midwood and Beacon. (I was reluctant to acknowledge this pen name for years, although it was a pretty open secret, because not all Sheldon Lord books are my work. I used ghostwriters — not for Midwood, I don’t think, but definitely for Beacon, and three or four different gentlemen took a turn playing Sheldon Lord for that firm. Similarly, I leased out Andrew Shaw, my pen name for Nightstand.) I never had copies of the books my ghosts produced; when I found them on the racks, that’s where I left them.

Now the disappearance of Sinner Man wouldn’t have kept me up nights, or even afternoons, but for the emergence of Charles Ardai’s Hard Case Crime. Charles reprinted several of my early Gold Medal titles, including Grifter’s Game and The Girl with the Long Green Heart, and then the two of us began looking for unacknowledged pseudonymous books of mine that might fit the Hard Case imprint. Charles published Killing Castro and Lucky at Cards and A Diet of Treacle, and one otherwise fine morning I thought of Sinner Man.

And searched for it. Searched all the Internet used-book sites, searched hard for a Lancer title by Sheldon Lord. There weren’t any — but there were two books listed, Lust Couples and The Hours of Rapture, both published by Domino Books in 1966, and Domino was a Lancer imprint. There was no way Sinner Man could have morphed into Lust Couples, but there must have been a few minutes of rapture within its pages, so a little poetic license seemed a possibility. I sent for The Hours of Rapture, and what turned up in the mailbox was a lesbian novel, one of the handful published in America that I hadn’t written. I read enough to be sure it wasn’t mine — a page, I think it took — and I tossed it aside. It was a book made to be tossed aside.

Here’s what I think happened: after Scott and I parted ways, he went on submitting books by some of my ghosts, and some of them got published under one of my names. The pub date would certainly fit that scenario, and so would the fellow’s past performance charts.

But what happened to Sinner Man? Did Lancer ever publish it, under some other title and pen name? They paid me for it, so they must have done something with it. And, if I had it back, well, Charles could publish it. I might make another thousand dollars, or even fifteen hundred; 2010 dollars, not 1967 dollars, but still.

So here’s my question. Have you — yes, that would be you, Gentle Reader — have you read the book I described? Guy in Connecticut kills his wife, hops on a train, winds up in Buffalo, hooks up with the local mob, Berman included. Ring any bells?

Here’s an incentive, okay? The first person to come up with the book will get, well, something. I could dedicate the book to you, say. Or, if you prefer, use your name for one of the characters. Or help your kid get into Antioch. Or, well, there must be something I can do for you.

Sheesh, if nobody can find the damn thing, I could always try writing it again. Hey, there’s an idea. Now if only I could find Lee Wright’s notes . . .

Editor’s note: If you have any information about Lawrence Block’s Sinner Man, please contact us.

Lawrence Block is a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America, has won multiple Edgar and Shamus awards and countless international prizes. The author of more than 50 books, he lives in New York City. Learn more at www.lawrenceblock.com.

Mulholland Books will publish A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF in May 2011.