Published by HarperCollins
896 pages, 2002
Why I Hate Lawrence Block
Reviewed by Kevin Burton Smith
Lawrence Block, Lawrence Block, Lawrence Block ...
Sheesh, gimme a break. I'm just so tired of hearing about him. OK, so he's this prolific, multiple-award-winning New York City author. But what has he done for ME lately? And with the publication of Enough Rope, a humongous, jaw-dropping collection of his short crime fiction that traces Mr. Big Shot's career from just about the dawn of time (actually, around 1957) to earlier this year, we're about to be subjected to yet another onslaught of publicity. There'll be no escape! I mean, January Magazine even wanted me to interview him for this occasion, but I won't do it, I tell you, I won't! After all, what on earth would I have to say to Lawrence Block? "Go away, you bother me"? That I detest him? Well, that would certainly speed up the interview, I guess ...
But it's true -- the guy just grates on me. How much, you ask? Well, let me count the ways:
(1) I hate Block for the fact that Enough Rope is a one-ton whopper of a book (at almost 900 pages, ladies and gentlemen, this is the proverbial blunt weapon) that doesn't even contain all of his short works, despite his sneaky claims to the contrary. In his introduction to this massive tome, he's forced to admit that, in fact, there are actually another couple of dozen stories of his floating around out there. And then, caught in his own trap, he tries to diminish the deception by claiming (with much carefully planned false modesty, I'll bet) that those additional tales, written mostly for post-pulp crime digests such as Manhunt, Guilty and Trapped, just aren't that good. Yeah, right.
(2) Not content with having written and sold those myriad short stories, the author admits to having also perpetrated more than 100 published books, including 50 or so novels and several short-story collections.
(3) But what really steams my clams is that this doofus hasn't merely produced a great honkin' body of work. Nope, what really irks me is that Block is so damn good. How unfair can you get?
(4) Worse, this guy isn't just consistently talented, he's all too often brilliant. Way too often. I mean, what gives Block the right to be remembered not only for, oh, Eight Million Ways to Die (1982), but also Everybody Dies (1998), Hit Man (1998) and the non-fiction how-to, Telling Lies for Fun and Profit (1981)?
(5) And don't even get me started on the utterly annoying fact that his short stories are every bit as good as his longer fiction.
(6) Plus, the damn stuff stands up to re-reading. In gathering evidence for this report, I was forced to read all the way through Block's latest morgue slab of a book, which meant subjecting myself once more to many of these stories. Despite my efforts, I found myself enjoying all over again Block's deceitful writerly tricks ... like humor, believable characters, straightforward prose and inventive but honest plotting. Damn him!
(7) By the way, did I mention that I'm not too happy, either, with his effortless use and total mastery of the language? Like, check out these opening sentences:
They grabbed Carole Butler a few minutes before midnight just a block and a half from her front door. [from "The Most Unusual Snatch"]
See? Block can set a scene by merely jotting down a few words, or he can take his time getting to the point, seemingly lingering over every word and yet somehow still drawing you in. We certainly want to know what happens to Carole, but we're just as curious about "Lucky Tom." Now, how the heck does he do that?
(8) Hell, he's even done well editing anthologies of other people's short crime yarns, including Master's Choice (1999) and its sequel, as well as a still-expanding set of volumes built around the seven deadly sins. Hey, isn't pride one of those sins?
(9) Then there are his insightful non-fiction works for wannabe authors, from the aforementioned Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, which Sue Grafton (I have a few bones to pick with her, too) said "should be a permanent part of every writer's library," to Write for Your Life (1986) and Spider, Spin Me a Web (1987). And, not content with that, he's had the temerity to hold seminars and workshops for novice writers. Like, take a break already, Lawrence!
(10) Naturally, being named a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America in 1994 wasn't enough for this hotshot. Block has also hogged numerous crime-writing awards from all over the planet, including a couple of Shamuses, a German Marlowe Award and four Edgars, one of which was a Best Novel commendation for A Walk Among the Tombstones (1992).
(11) Of course, Block could have stopped at having one successful series character. But NOOOO!!! That simply wouldn't satisfy this greed machine. No, Mr. Finger-in-Every-Pie, Book-in-Every-Crime-Fiction-Subgenre-Known-to-Man has created series around a roomful of impressive protagonists -- from his popular stories about Matthew Scudder, a tormented alcoholic private eye, to his gentle, cozy adventures of Bernie Rhodenbarr, an affable bookseller and unrepentant thief; from his darkly whimsical Keller series, centering on a quirky, conflicted hit man who should be spending way more time on his therapist's couch than he already does, to his Martin Ehrengraf series, about a cynical and devious criminal-defense attorney who's more criminal than his clients. And how about Chip Harrison, a young detective who's obviously schizophrenic, one part sex-crazy Holden Caulfield and one part adolescent Archie Goodwin. I tell ya, you can't throw a rock in Manhattan without hitting one of Block's fictional series characters!
(12) Let's not forget, either, about Evan Tanner, a sleepless (and possibly drug-addled) spy, last seen in Tanner on Ice (1998). And Block dares to call himself a patriotic American? What sort of slime would cast such aspersions on his country's brave and noble intelligence agents?
(13) Not surprisingly, Block won't keep his series stars neatly locked away in his novels; he insists on trotting them out in short stories, as well. And then he rubs our faces in those exceptional tales by including most of them in Enough Rope.
(14) Block's easy-going way with women really sticks in my craw. Particularly annoying is the masterful way he delineates a relationship through subtle use of dialogue and action. This guy likes women, and it shows. When Matt Scudder and his lady friend (later his wife), Elaine, go for a walk in Manhattan, there's a kind of hush all over the world. But honestly, would you really want Lawrence Block anywhere near your sister or, God forbid, your daughter? I mean, the man admits to having written PORNOGRAPHY!!!
(15) Yep, that's right. Block started out in his career penning porn novels -- sometimes even lesbian ones. Him! An acknowledged, practicing heterosexual!!! Who does he think he is, anyway? Talk about misappropriation of voice! Someone should alert the media ...
(16) Of course, this cowardly wordsmith didn't release his pornographic books under his own name. Oh, no. He wrote those no-doubt-tasteless little titles under a deceptive slew of pseudonyms, such as Andrew Shaw, Sheldon Lord and Jill Emerson. This guy has more pen names than a politician has excuses, come re-election time.
(17) More reasons to hate Lawrence Block? How about his clear way with words, the casualness with which he unwinds his tales and his straightforward plot conclusions that seem as inevitable as taxes, but a lot more fun.
(18) Or despise him for his seemingly endless supply of story twists and turns, and the sheer giddy creativeness of them. I'm beginning to think that Block does, indeed (as he once joked in Writer's Digest), have a factory in New Jersey that spits out plot ideas for his every need.
(19) Yes, it bugs me too that for years he wrote a column in Writer's Digest, offering advice to young authors that was every bit as charming and readable as his fiction. Who's he trying to kid? Does this egomaniac really think we can't see right through his "generous" efforts to support struggling writers, in a pathetic and rather transparent Machiavellian scheme to attract attention to himself?
(20) And his willingness to look beyond social and racial ignorance to the real crimes at hand is shocking, just shocking. In "Batman's Helpers," possibly my favorite story in Enough Rope, P.I. Scudder is hired to hound street-vending immigrants who, straight off the boat from Africa, begin hawking knock-off T-shirts illegally on the sidewalks of Manhattan. A lesson that nobody is above the law? No, Mr. Block has his detective showing compassion toward these lawbreakers, who would so blatantly defy the benevolent wishes of American corporations and steal jobs from the good, God-fearing citizens of this great land of ours.
(21) Then there's this author's eye for subtle but telling, and often humorous, details. Consider another story in this volume, "Collecting Ackermans," in which Block has a sour, working-joe cop drinking "lukewarm coffee from a Styrofoam container. But for the Styrofoam, the beverage would have been absolutely tasteless."
(22) What also burns me is Block's ability to establish a character using only a few words, with all the assurance of a card counter saying, "Hit me." Take, for instance, "In for a Penny," in which a man picks up a woman in a bar: "She said her name was Tiffany, and maybe it was." Hello? Is there anyone who thinks this is going to be true love?
(23) To the list of strikes against Block throw in the fact that, while his fiction is powerful and passionate, and though he often tosses the most awful kinds of nastiness at your feet, he rarely slaps you in the face with it.
(24) What's more, even in his shortest stories he's somehow able to lead you down the garden path, one clue at a time, until you're fully expecting that knife in the back. Except he's just as likely to kick you in the shin and run away laughing. There oughta be a law!
(25) Far too often, his short tales are filled with the blackest humor possible -- storytelling of the most perverse and twisted kind, offering the bleakest of perspectives on human nature. Yet, his characters never quite surrender their humanity totally. Somehow, even the monsters (and yes, here there be monsters) retain their humanity at some level.
(26) But then Block will turn around and try to pretend he's not the cynical, hateful misanthrope we all know him to be. As he does in the moving vignette, "The Night and the Music," he'll spin some pleasant little diversion, a snippet of what could be called a love story, which celebrates Scudder and his wife, as well as the magic of a New York evening.
(27) That's another thing that really gets my boxers in a twist -- his remarkable sense of place. Although he's wandered all over the globe, Block has planted his flag firmly in Manhattan. There are eight million stories in New York City, and he seems to want to tell them ALL. Then, a few years ago, he tried to make up for this selfishness by helping to sponsor a couple of benches (in the names of both Matthew Scudder and Bernie Rhodenbarr) in Bryant Park, behind the New York Public Library's Humanities and Social Sciences Building (that's right, the one with the lions, on 42nd Street). Like, "Look at me! I'm giving something back to the city!" I tell you, this guy's up to something!
(28) And how can you ever feel good about a writer who's so obsessed with killers? Lawrence (or "Larry," as he prefers -- just like Theodore Bundy preferred "Ted") Block has been weaving tales about psychos, serial killers and other seriously disturbed individuals for 45 years. Back when Hannibal Lecter was still rolling about in droopy diapers, washing his fava beans down with formula, not Chianti, Block was already laying claim to what would become the serial-killer subgenre. I mean, there are enough homicidal wing-nuts in his stories to start their own union. Or at least a support group.
(29) I also hate the coy way he drops lines into his stories, supposedly about other occupations, but somehow always relating back to writing. "I suppose if a man does good work," he reflects in "This Crazy Business of Ours," "sooner or later he develops a good reputation." Now, is that really about being an assassin, like Tanner, or some other "crazy business"? Like, oh ... writing? And we all know which writer this raving egomaniac is thinking of, don't we?
(30) In "Some Days You Get the Bear," a film critic remarks that he never "did find himself writing something he did not believe to be the truth." That really ticks me off. Because Block's characters, no matter how warped or wicked (or strange -- in this yarn, for instance, the film critic develops a fetish for, well, a teddy bear) always do behave according to their own particular truths.
(31) Then there's the gleeful way Block's dapper little shyster, Martin Ehrengraf (represented in 10 of this collection's 83 stories) nonchalantly subverts justice, time and time again. I mean, really! In these difficult times of national concern, when we're told that the rights of the many outweigh petty constitutional protections for the few, do we really want our impressionable children exposed to stories in which an allegedly dignified member of the bar proudly and cynically proclaims, "I don't much care for the whole idea of leaving a man's fate in the hands of twelve people, not one of them clever enough to get out of jury duty"?
(32) Notice how I didn't even mention all the movies currently being made from Block's books, including Harrison Ford as Scudder in A Walk Among the Tombstones, based on a Scott (Get Shorty) Frank screenplay, or Jeff Bridges as Keller in a film of the same name, or Burglars Can't Be Choosers, which is being developed for George Clooney? (Gee, Whoopi wasn't bad enough?)
(33) The plain unpleasant truth is that nobody working in crime fiction today has written so many good books, of so many different types, with so many great characters.
(34) But the absolute worst thing about Lawrence Block may be that he shows no sign of abating, of ceasing and desisting, but will cheerfully continue writing and delighting readers all over the world, and continue to inspire and infuriate other writers for years to come.
How dare he!
Somebody stop him before he uses up all the good ideas! | August 2002
Kevin Burton Smith is a January Magazine contributor and the editor/creator of The Thrilling Detective Web Site. A Montrealer by birth and inclination, he's currently living and conducting research in Los Angeles -- or Chandlertown, as he calls it. Please send snow and smoked meat.