"It was the right kind of night for it." The no-nonsense opener gets right down to business, inviting the reader to explore the night and discover just what the night is right for--as if we didn't know!
To protect his sister, reputable private detective Ed London finds himself in the unenviable position of having to dispose of the body of the woman with whom brother-in-law Jack Enright has been having an affair. Convinced that Jack is not the killer, London dumps the corpse in Central Park and figures that is the end of it. What he doesn't know, of course, provides us with the plot. Given his character and the way of mystery novels, we expect that London will look for the murderer as a matter of principle, but an anonymous phone call gives him an even better reason.
The book is dated, but that's more than half the fun. Women exclaim "darn!" Cold-blooded criminals warn "go or get off the pot, London." And we chuckle.
I defy any detective-fiction, film-noir aficionado to read COWARD'S KISS and not find his mind nostalgically peopled with characters reminiscent of those created by Hammett, Chandler, and Macdonald. London's narrative prose defines him as Spade in one passage, Marlowe in another. And with his poetic imagery he's a dead ringer for Lew Archer in the next. Looking at the old Ruskin Hotel and recalling the neighborhood in its better days, he records his thoughts: "The Ruskin stared across early-evening Eighth Avenue, watching whores bloom in doorways like pretty weeds in a dying garden."
As Ed London evokes familiar images of old friends Bogie, Powell, and Mitchum, supporting characters (I can't bring myself to call them "minor") trigger fond memories of actors who add the quintessential seasoning without which the excursion back would be incomplete. True to form, Block does not allow his detective to avoid the private eye curse--the obligatory, hard-boiled "working-over." The eye sees London as Billy and Ralph carry out the boss's orders, but there's no mistaking the mind's pictures of Dick Powell taking it like a man while Mike Mazurki as the pathetic, dumb "pro" administers the blows, and sidekick Sheldon Leonard oversees.
Further aiding and abetting the plot is a character who appears at first to be Peter Lorre but dissolves into Sidney Greenstreet before we decide he's really someone else we can't quite place. Finally, one more character must be taken into account. Who would YOU cast as the villainous sociopath who orders assassinations as nonchalantly as he orders a steak?
For the most part, reading COWARD'S KISS was a lark, but it's easy to see why it wasn't developed into a series of Ed London novels. London doesn't come to life for me as a well-defined character in his own right. Bernie Rhodenbarr, burglar extraordinaire of the popular Block series, seems to emerge periodically as an alter ego of sorts, notably in the interaction with help-mate Maddy--thereby displacing a part of the London-character-that-might-have-been. I harbor a well-deserved place for Bernie, but not as a part of Ed London.
The plot is tightly structured with no loose ends, and the revelation at the finish is not a surprise to any reader who looks for clues along the way. My mistake was permitting myself to get too caught up in the sport of Block's style. And what sport it is! When the one serious element surfaced, it sent the lark spiraling to the ground, an arrow piercing its heart--and the fun was over. I resented the vile intrusion, but in deference to Lawrence Block, it was more than likely a touch the story needed. The fate of the "little man with a harmless face" serves as a reminder that murder is not funny, not a game.
In the end, three men have proclaimed themselves to be cowards, But Lawrence Block delivers the kiss.