3 out of 5
Strange Embrace is pretty dated. Probably not the first thing you want to hear about your book, and also not especially an unusual trait in old school pulps, but it’s pretty deeply engrained in Embrace – even down to the title, come to think of it. Then again, this was still part of writer Lawrence Block’s softcore era, which could pretty much all start with such a disclaimer; so “strange” is used to describe things that are anything but – but it was a different time, and etc. – and women are assessed solely on their figures, with one particular character “built” for only for sex. And it’s progressive, because she likes it, right?
If you can move past some of this, we do find the saving grace of Block’s early writings in these subgenres – that there’s a solid, fun crime novel providing the bulk of the text.
In Strange Embrace, play producer Johnny Lane finds he upcoming production in trouble when his leading lady is found dead in her apartment – throat slashed. Things must go on, despite what’s being deemed a random killing, but then others in the play start getting threatening phone calls, and others are being knocked off as well… While friendly with the local constabulary, Johnny gets caught up in the play-like drama of the matter, and can’t help but do some investigating of his own.
The solve to the whodunnit will likely be pretty obvious, and there are absolutely clear remnants of this book being a TV tie-in, with some of the supporting characters (the investigating detective, Haig; Johnny’s Asian manservant, who fakes a stereotypical accent around guests) feeling like purely comedy relief, but Block provides crackling dialogue throughout, and a solid throughline for Lane to follow his mystery. And even when we do get into the naked business, dawdling over sex scenes, Block does it with a business-like effort: it’s definitely all idealized, Cinemax-swooning stuff, but it’s told with the same tight and focused tone as the rest of the narrative, and even takes some swipes at its male lead for “under performing” in some instances.
Certainly not the strongest work of Block’s career, and more clearly “of its time” than some others, but also still leagues ahead of lesser-caliber shelf-filling pulps thanks to its tonal and literary consistency. Solidly entertaining for its 150 pages, and even capped off by a pretty hilarious zinger in the concluding paragraph.