Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Book Reviews: Lawrence Block is a Master of Murder Mysteries

Review by Susan Grigsby

My brother built guitars. And even though my husband and I supported him morally and financially for years, we never managed to get our hands on one of his instruments. It seemed that no sooner were they completed than they were sold. They helped to pay the rent.

He died on April 28, 2011 and I wrote a diary about his death in September of that year. I was angry, upset over the callus remarks made at a GOP debate. The support that i received from many members of this community prompts me to share with you some very, very good news.

A couple of weeks ago I got a telephone call from another luthier who worked with my brother. Steve had been helping Ken build better guitars. After Steve died, Ken took over the last guitar Steve had been working on, completed it and wanted to know if I would like to buy it. It arrived a few days later and I have been working on my calluses ever since. It will eventually go to his grandsons, but for now I get to hear the beautiful sounds it can produce.
The strange part about the time of that call was that it came while I was working on my review of a Lawrence Block character who reminded me of no one else so much as my brother. Steve was a recovering alcoholic who was very open about what he had learned during his travels through the 12 steps. His journey seemed to give him a serenity, a centeredness that he had never shown before. What made his loss so much more painful was that he had arrived at a place in his life where he knew who he was and was content with that knowledge. Being with him was to experience a calmness that he seemed to radiate. And while as far as I know, he never was a retired NYPD investigator who did the occasional favor for a friend, in many other ways he was very like Mathew Scudder.
A Drop of the Hard Stuff is the 17th entry in this long running series and the first one that I read. Told as a flashback, the novel follows Matt Scudder's first year of sobriety. He is helping a childhood friend, Jack Kelly, who is working his way through Step 9 (making amends to those you've wronged) of the twelve step program when he is murdered. Finding the list of people that his friend hurt, Step 8, Matt Scudder tries to find one who might have been responsible. But it seems that many on the list either don't remember any harm, are in jail or dead. Did I mention that Scudder's childhood friend operated on the wrong side of the law?

Lawrence Block takes you back to the time of pay phones and cigarettes and a different New York. His main character often travels by foot - I don't think Scudder owns a car - and attends at least a meeting a day all over town. It is fascinating to learn how he decides which meeting to attend, based on the different demographics and his particular mood at the time. Throughout the book Scudder projects an aura of calm competence. Until the bottle appears in his room.
The next Scudder book that I read took place in 1975 while Scudder was still drinking in When the Sacred Gin Mill Closes, the title taken from a Dave Van Ronk song:
And so we've had another night
Of poetry and poses
And each man knows he'll be alone
When the sacred ginmill closes.

The story opens in an after hours joint where Scudder is sipping his bourbon:
Morrissey's wouldn't close until nine or ten in the morning. The legal closing hour for bars in the city of New York is 4:00 A.M., an hour earlier on Saturday nights, but Morrissey's was an illegal establishment and was thus not bound by regulations of that sort.
Which meant that when it was robbed that night, the Morrissey's (two brothers who owned the bar) didn't really want to report it to the police. Well, that and the fact they wanted to settle their own scores prompted them to ask Matt to investigate.

He has also been asked to investigate the murder of a drinking buddy's wife to make sure that the two young men who were charged with the murder are convicted of it. Naturally, investigating both crimes turns up some strange and mutual connections. Because, after all, this is a Lawrence Block mystery.
There is much to admire in the flawed character of Mathew Scudder, he is perceptive, thoughtful, compassionate and moral. He's made mistakes and knows it. He walks through a city that his creator obviously loves, commenting on the buildings and businesses and drawing a graphic picture of New York City. The books are filled with individual characters that are each unique in his/her idiosyncrasies.
Both of these novels have a nostalgic, pensive feel, as if cherishing the past life of the city and the protagonist. (Personally I love them because I am reminded so often of my older brother. I wonder now why we never discussed this author and his work as we had so many others.)
A very different character is John Keller, professional assassin and the main character in Block's Hit Man series. Keller is indeed a thinking man's hit man.
Hit Man is a collection of short stories about Keller's work. While I don't normally care much for short stories, the adventures of Keller suit this format. After all, being a hit man means that you fly into a city, kill someone and fly back home. Not a lot to base a novel on.

But in the first story, "Answers to Soldier", Keller decides that the town of Roseburg, Oregon, where the subject lives, might make a good place to settle down. So he gets a realtor to show him properties and daydreams about a life away from New York City. He finished the job and returns to New York, but that daydream stays with him.
From New York he receives his assignments from Dot, the woman who lives in White Plains in the big house with the Boss. She sends him out on a job and then sends him the money when it is done.
The hits are done, or not, in the simplest terms, and Keller moves on. What is fun is his internal monogloque that is all over the place. On one trip to Colorado he picks up a western novel in the airport. On the cover of the novel are the words, "He rode a thousand miles to kill a man he never met." And that sends Keller off on another imaginary trip, deciding how many miles a man could travel on horseback and how long it would take:
How long would it take, a thousand-mile journey on horseback? A thoroughbred got around a racecourse in something like two minutes, but it couldn’t go all day at that pace any more than a human being could string together twenty-six four-minute miles and call it a marathon.
What could you manage on a horse, fifty miles a day? A hundred miles in two days, a thousand miles in twenty? Three weeks, say, at the conclusion of which a man would probably be eager to kill anybody, stranger or blood kin.
After gaining and losing a dog, and a girlfriend, at the same time, he decides that he is ready to throw in the towel and retire. Or get a hobby, as suggested by Dot. So he gets a hobby: stamp collecting. And now we have a stamp collecting hit man of compassion and integrity. No wonder I love Lawrence Block.

Hit List is another collection of stories about the adventures of Keller who has now started collecting stamps, using the down time between jobs or even while visiting other cities on jobs.

After spending a miserable night on an assignment in a hotel room with a group of Hell's Angels in the room above, Keller requests a room change. He stops at a convenience store to fill the car and to phone Dot. While at the store he asks about ear plugs:
The convenience store clerk was sure they had ear plugs. “They’re here somewhere,” she said, her nose twitching like a rabbit’s. Keller wanted to tell her not to bother, but he sensed she was already committed to the hunt. And, wouldn’t you know it, she found them. Sterile foam ear plugs, two pairs to the packet, $1.19 plus tax.
After all she’d gone through, how could he tell her he’d changed his room and didn’t need them, that he’d just asked out of curiosity? Oh, these are foam, he considered saying. I wanted the titanium ones. But that would just set her off on a twenty-minute hunt for titanium ear plugs, and who could say she wouldn’t find some?
He paid for them and told her he wouldn’t need a bag. “It’s a good thing they’re sterile,” he said, pointing to the copy on the packet. “If they started breeding we’d have ’em coming out of our ears.”
She avoided his eyes as she gave him his change.
After a few jobs go astray Keller and Dot begin to wonder what is going on. Why are jobs cancelled or resolved before Keller gets to do his thing? Neither believe it is simply coincidence.

Bernie Rhodenbarr is the protagonist of Burglars Can't Be Choosers and a dozen other novels and short stories.

In Burglars Can't Be Choosers, Bernie accepts a commission to obtain a blue leather box from a wealthy man's apartment. Initially the burglary all goes as planned as Bernie cracks the locks and enters the apartment to search for the box, and lift anything else he may find of interest. What he hadn't expected was the arrival of the police or the presence of a dead body in the bedroom.
The Bernie Rhodenbarr series is much lighter in tone than the Matthew Scudder novels or the Keller stories. It is laced with witty dialogue, groaningly good puns and general humor.

Lawrence Block also writes series about:

Evan Michael Tanner.
From Barnes & Noble, which I am using since I haven't read any of this series yet:
Evan Michael Tanner hasn't slept in more than a decade—not since a small piece of battlefield shrapnel invaded his skull and obliterated his brain's sleep center. Still, he's managed to find numerous inventive ways to occupy his waking hours.
Tanner is a card-carrying member of hundreds of international organizations, from the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Order to the Flat Earth Society—not because he believes in their myriad lost causes, he's simply a joiner by nature. Besides, it gives him something to do.
The Russians think Tanner is a CIA operative on a covert mission. The CIA is certain he's a Soviet agent. Actually, he's in Turkey pursuing a fortune in hidden Armenian gold. But Tanner's up for anything, including a little spycraft, if it helps him reach his big payday. And if need be, he'll even start a small revolution . . .
Chip Harrison
Chip Harrison is Block's salute to Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe. He is a take on Wolfe's assistant, Archie Goodwin, while his employer, Leo Haig, openly models himself after Wolfe himself, imitating most of his idiosyncracies, such as refusing to leave his residence on business and sending out his associate instead to do the "legwork" (though he substitutes an affection for tropical fish for Wolfe's obsession with plants). Haig believes that Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin actually exist in real life, living and operating under pseudonyms; that Rex Stout was only a chronicler and one pseudonym of Archie Goodwin, and that if Haig proves himself worthy, Wolfe will invite Haig to dinner. Having read all publications on Wolfe, Haig operates as he imagines Wolfe would, and assigns Harrison tasks as Wolfe would assign Goodwin.
Born in 1938, Lawrence Block is an amazingly prolific writer, known not only for the quantity of his work, but for its consistent high quality. He has won multiple Anthony, Edgar and Shamus awards for his work. He maintains his own blog LB's Blog: Telling Lies for Fun and Profit and often posts news of bargains to be had on his books. A lot of the e-books are available for under $5 which make them very affordable.

Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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