14 March 2007

Chips Off The Block

For most of the last two decades or so, Lawrence Block has been known widely as the author of a compelling series of mysteries with the cunning (if reluctant) detective Matt Scudder, or a series of entertaining whodunits with burglar-criminologist Bernie Rhodenbarr. Into that mix add the newer series with hitman Keller, occasional one-off books like Small Town, as well as books of short stories that Block has edited, or others written about the art of writing, and you have a very large collection by an author whose character portraits of his cities, and his constructions of the crimes, are as interesting and compelling as the protagonists themselves. I have more than 70 books in my Block collection; I say that less to brag and more to make the point of just how much Lawrence Block has written, and how much there is to read.

In addition to all of the new(ish) books and series mentioned above, Block’s older – much older – work should not be overlooked, and the recent re-publication of Lucky at Cards is a good opportunity for a quick primer. I would say there are four general categories into which these early books fall. The first are the stories of con men, scams, and love-gone-awry are constants, all tautly-written. Put out by the relatively new publishing company Hard Case Crime, Lucky at Cards is great example, originally published in 1964, a focused novel of noirish deception that includes this terrific paragraph:

“We answered the question in the unmade bed with the lights on and the shades up. The room was on a high floor, so no one could have seen us, but we never thought about that at the time one way or the other. The lovemaking was too fast, too furious, too compulsive. There was deep need and dark hunger, and flesh merging with flesh, and an orchestral swell out of Tschaikovsky [sic] that led to a coda of pure Stravinsky.”

Hard Case has also republished two other early Block books, Grifter’s Game (originally published as Mona) and – one of my all-time favorites – The Girl With the Long Green Heart. The latter incorporates one of the most careful, delicate, and cleverly-executed double-crosses I think I have ever read.

The second category consists of what I call the “ex-” novels: ex-Green Berets in the The Specialists and ex-Special Ops in Such Men Are Dangerous, along with ex-prison inmates in After the First Death, and almost ex-married couples in Deadly Honeymoon. Needless to say, perhaps, but there’s a lot of revenge in these books, and its revenge as it should be, as one wants it to be: heavy-handed and fairly ruthless.

The third category involve different mysteries that never quite got off the ground as a series. That may have been Block’s intention – what do I know! – but these are characters one could imagine having a longer lifespan. Among them are Coward’s Kiss, with Ed London (and originally published as Death Pulls a Doublecross, according to my copy) and You Could Call It Murder, with Roy Markham.

Last but not least are those that I would place (with great pleasure!) in the comic category, everything from the Evan Tanner series to the Chip Harrison books to more one-offs like Ronald Rabbit Is A Dirty Old Man. All of Block’s books have their humorous elements, usually sharp and witty, and reading these it’s easy to see where that comes from. These also have sex very much at their core, from Chip’s charmingly-youthful quests to Evan’s sophisticated, globe-trotting conquests, all of which only make these stories more readable and, certainly, more entertaining.

You can take a look at my library of Lawrence Block here, via LibraryThing – or check out the author’s own website for a complete list by character and category.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home