By Evangeline Jennings
Shamelessly, I am re-posting here two related pieces I wrote ages ago during an A to Z challenge on my now abandoned previous blog. Both because a friend asked where they had gone to and because I think they need preserving for posterity.
B IS FOR BLOCK, LAWRENCE BLOCK
A favorite author and a role model. He’s in my mind because I’ve just read his novel Getting Off and I’m about to dive into A Drop of the Hard Stuff – the latest in a long line of Matthew Scudder novels.
I’m sure most experts would tell you Scudder – who emerges over the decades out of blackest noir into a brighter, more optimistic light – is Block’s crowning achievement. And they’d probably be right. But.
But I also love the burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr – think light-boiled Raffles meets a more ept Wooster, Chip Harrison – a great narrative voice – and Leo Haig, an inspired meta-Nero Wolfe, who takes on Harrison as his own personal Archie Goodwin.
Other series characters include Evan Tanner – who achieves more because he cannot and does not need to sleep – and Keller, the conflicted hit man.
I have – this is a guess because I’m not at home at present – maybe fifty of Lawrence Block’s novels and short story collections. The pace and economy of his writing is a lesson I’m still learning from. His humour is to die for. His knack for finding a story is seeming endless. And he writes about sex – I imagine – with a gleeful glint in his eye. More than anything else, his books make you glad to be alive.
Getting Off (A novel of Sex and Violence) is a gem and I shall be writing more about it elsewhere shortly. Suffice to say that if I’d read it first, I might not have had the courage to write my own take on the abused vengeance demon theme.
However, my favourite work by Lawrence Block is Telling Lies For Fun And Profit. Not for its plot – it’s a writer’s guide. Not for the many valuable tips inside. But for the title. Some of you who know me, may recognise that I’ve been using it – on and off – as my own personal motto since I started writing fiction. Indeed to prove the point, my biography at the back of Cars and Girls, Short Stack, and Derby Shorts all start out as follows: Evangeline tells lies for fun and profit.
Lawrence Block, I salute you.
K IS FOR KELLER AND L IS FOR LAWRENCE BLOCK
Yes, I’ve already alphabetized Mr Lawrence Block but I’ve been sick, I’m behind, and I’m not averse to cheating. Whatever. This entry is dedicated to his detached killer for hire, John Paul Keller.
From the moment you first notice Keller is only a vowel away from Killer – about halfway through the third book for me* – you realize Block is doing something more than writing about a hit man and his many, many victims.
Neither Pope nor Beatle, Keller is a glass Block uses to look darkly upon America and the human condition. Like many of your actual real people, Keller is not in love with his career – strike that, job. As he travels around the nation dealing death, he spends much of his time dreaming of retirement – often in whichever shady pleasantville he’s visiting on terminal business. He looks for meaning and he may even worry about morality and ethics as he does what he needs to to get by.
I’ve seen idiots whine because there’s too much thinking and telling and not enough showing and shooting in these stories. That’s like saying the ocean is all very well, but can’t they please do something about all that nasty water.
Example: Keller, like Block, is a New Yorker. He’s away and working when the twin towers fall. His reaction is to question his mission. Does his target really need to die when the world has been turned on its head? The answer, inevitably, is yes. But when he gets back to his Manhattan home, Keller volunteers to serve food to rescue workers who are, as he allows, actually in the grisly and unrewarding business of body retrieval. Block, through the arguably inhuman Keller, revisits 9/11 and presents it in a small-scale but hugely human way. When the Red Cross shows up to industrialize the food delivery process, Keller walks away. He can see the value of their organization but it’s not for him and he thinks the rescue workers deserve better than their soulless fare.
Keller is as likely to teach you something about baseball, gated golf course communities, or dogs as he is to show you something new about killing. He worries he may be a sociopath every bit as much as he worries about dying by the gun. He dances back and forth across the line between retirement and an active self-employment that verges on addiction. His conversations with agent Dot often shed fresh light on old issues and they’re always good for the wryest of smiles – think Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in the business of homicide. When they talk about his volunteering, for example, she explains the difference between the feel-good volunteer and tireless professional support. And, pardon me for changing the subject, but here’s a thing.
Keller began as a series of short stories written for Playboy. Initially, the Hit Man took his orders from an Old Man up in White Plains. It worked, but it lacked something. So the Old Man’s powers declined and he became a liability and eventually he was succeeded – in a very Borgia stylee – by his office manager, Dot.
Keller. The Old Man. Dot. That’s an essay on noir minimalism right there. But the note I take away is admiration for what I perceive to be Block’s professionalism and ability to fix his story on the fly. Similarly, I smiled when people told me the fourth Keller novel would be the last. A writer like Lawrence Block doesn’t kill the geese that lay his golden eggs. Keller, like Block’s flagship character Matthew Scudder, will be around until the author finds something that pays better. Or, like Keller, retires. As if.
And that, my imaginary reader, is what professional writing has to be about.
* I jest**
** Or do I?
And why do I think these pieces deserve to live on when my old blog lies mouldering somewhere or other? Simple. Lawrence Freaking Block commented on the second one:
I not only enjoyed this (how could I not?) but found it thoughtful and perceptive. Thanks!