The Burglar Who Kept Me Reading- Lawrence Block and the art of American Crime Fiction

My first (and only) meeting with the American crime writer Lawrence Block was at a book signing at the Hay Literary Festival back in, oh, a long time ago. If I remember rightly, it was raining. It usually does. Block was a humble and charming man, with a keen wit and an eye for forensic detail that he often brings to his work. That work has, almost unbelievably, now spanned over fifty years.

I’d been thinking about writing about Lawrence for a while. Not because he is under appreciated- he has plenty of awards, fans and critical acclaim but, in my circle at least, he remains something of a relative unknown and I thought it would be nice to put that right.

Let’s start with a statement of the obvious: Block is a writer for readers. His prose style is efficient and elegant; his dialogue believable; his storytelling deft and inviting. Like many working writers, Block has spent time crafting as many novels and short stories pseudonymously, a number of which have been reprinted under his given name in recent years.

He cut his writing teeth on a series of pulp novels in the 1950s (some, invariably, are better than others). His major break came in 1976 with the release of The Sins of the Fathers, the first novel featuring his most acclaimed creation,  a recovering alcoholic ex-cop plying a trade as an unlicenced PI called Matt Scudder.

The first three novels are pretty much exercises in riffing on a decent theme. It wasn’t until the 80s that a broader, coherent narrative was introduced with additional back story on Scudder’s early drinking and his descent into alcoholism becoming a core part of the overall story. In my favourite Scudder novel, When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, Scudder’s character is a fully formed, nuanced man with very human frailties and failings. Ginmill marked a step change in the ambition and scope of the novels,  in terms of plot complexity, taut dialogue and broader characterisation. In subsequent novels, old and new characters are introduced, and Block introduces general developments to Scudder’s character that are as surprising as they are welcome.

Warmth towards the character and familiarity of plot and structure are part of what attracts and retains Block’s readers. Despite an often gruesome content ( A Ticket to the Boneyard is probably the best example in nastiness) there is a comfort to Scudder novels that should not go unremarked. Scudder is a truly beguiling character, full of idiosyncracies and behaviours that bring the reader back in time and again. My mental image of Scudder was not quite Liam Neeson (the most recent film adaptation of Block’s work in A Walk Among the Tombstones)  but, hey, if it gets more people reading Block’s work then so much the better.

Scudder is a man who spends much of his time reflecting on his choices and his life- a theme Block has returned to with his most recent creation, the hitman Keller. A man as obsessed by stamp collecting as he is by assassination, Keller reveals himself as a reluctant killer, daydreaming about retirement and settling down; of giving up a life on the edge and settling for humble domesticity. In Hit Man, Hit List and Hit Parade (you get the idea) Block grapples with extraordinary job and life choices with a down to earth matter of factness that is infectious. I don’t know whether or not there is a direct influence or not but an echo of Keller can be found in Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso‘s astonishing crime comic book 100 Bullets, a work of graphic violence, deeply flawed protagonists yet firmly within the pulp and crime fiction traditions.

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Whilst Azzarello and Risso had an enormous canvas and complex plot for their chief protagonist Agent Graves, there are undoubted echoes of Keller and his deliberations over choices and consequences.

If you need a hopping on point for Block though, then it is the character of  Bernie Rhodenbarr with whom you should start. Rhodenbarr is one of my favourite characters in crime fiction: scrap that, he may be one of my favourite characters in literature, full stop.

Over thirteen novels, Block has, in Rhodenbarr, a witty, gentleman burglar, grappling his way from completely unbelievable event to the next unbelievable event with panache and aplomb. Rhodenbarr is a charming, knowing host and enormous fun to have around. The plots, as with the Scudder novels, run to a form- our anti-hero does a B&E, discovers a much more heinous crime afoot (usually a murder), finds himself the prime suspect and then sets about solving the crime and wrapping things up, usually with an absurd sense of drama. And herein lies the charm of Rhodenbarr and the smartness of his creator. Block is acutely aware of his own audience and the fact that they are likely to be readers of other crime writers.Brilliantly, he has Rhodenbarr as bookshop owner and crime novel officianado. This knowing wink to the audience is an old trick- think of it like a literary version of Kevin Spacey turning to camera in House of Cards, letting us in on the narrative and the secret gags.

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The Rhodenbarr novels are liberally littered with references to other writers and  in The Burglar Who Thought He Was Bogart there is a nearly, but-not-quite jumping of the shark: a Humphrey Bogart festival and a series of set pieces around Bogart films is wonderfully constructed and executed. Block knows we love this stuff, he loves this stuff, why don’t we all enjoy it together?

Block is one of those writers who simply do the work: but what work. Most writers would give their high teeth for one great character; Block has created around a dozen. Block is much more than dependable and reliable: his style and class as a writer and brilliant plotter are superlative.

In case you were wondering about that book signing, he was good enough to put a signature in an omnibus edition of his Matt Scudder books for me. As you might expect, it’s a copy that I hold very dear.

 

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