Saturday, September 17, 2016

Lawrence Block

I was introduced to Grand Master crime writer, Lawrence Block, from reading his excellent Bernie Rhodenbarr series. I picked up my first Bernie mystery a few years ago. Browsing the crime section I came across these great eye-catching covers. 


Bernie Rhodenbarr is an antiquarian bookseller/ gentleman-burglar who usually trips over a dead body and becomes the centre of a well written, twisty-mystery. What makes them fun and a little tongue in cheek is that Bernie himself is a fan of books and the crime genre, and the stories often involve uncovering rare editions of Raymond Chandler, the realisation of the rising value of early Sue Grafton, and what would happen next in an Agatha Christie.

By luck the first one I read was The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams which paints Bernie in a more sympathetic light, he’s a reformed Burglar in this one who’s drawn back to the criminal life because it’s hard deal with the financial strain of running a bookshop these days and… he’s addicted to burglary. It paints this gentleman-burglar in a sympathetic light, and eased me into the series, otherwise I might not have got hooked on Bernie's adventures. ...Unless I'd have picked up The Burglar Who Thought He Was Bogart, because it’s my pick of the bunch.


There was one film adaptation. The gentleman burglar was played by Whoopi Goldberg in a whacky 80s comedy caper. Block was unimpressed and developed the series by adding an extra layer of literary/ cultural research – The Burglar Who Painted Like Mondrian, The Burglar Who Liked To Quote Kipling, The Burglar In The Rye… Block does his research and creates clever histories surrounding well known subjects which makes you question what you thought you knew.


Lawrence Block's Pulp Fiction 

I recommend his writing guideTelling Lies for Fun and Profit, as essential reading for writers, alongside Stephen King's On Writing and Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones. (I'm also a big fan of Liz Gilbert's Big Magic). 

As well as pragmatic writing advice, Block reveals biographical details and talks about how he got started as a writer. Block started in the erotic pulps of the 1950s, an industry that died decades ago, which is unfortunate as it was a way for him to get his foot in the door and develop as a writer.

His pulp novels were written under pseudonyms like Lesley Evans, Sheldon Lord and Jill Emerson. You Can't Lose was the first story to be published under his own name, in 1957.

Lucky at Cards (first published as The Sex Shuffle in 1964 under the pen name Sheldon Lord) was recently re-released under Block’s own name, and rightly so as it’s a well delivered piece of crime noir. 

They say every man has a weakness. They say that for every man there’s a woman somewhere in the world who can make him jump through fiery hoops just by snapping her fingers. They say a man’s lucky if he never meets that woman.
Couldn’t resist that cover. For fans of pulp fiction cover art here’s a couple of links: 

And talk about a writer having fun with his craft, over 50 years after putting Jill Emerson to rest, Block recently returned to his roots, writing (as Emerson) Getting Off, a novel of sex and violence, which pretends to be nothing apart from the pulp fiction it is. Titillating stuff!  

Matt Scudder Series 

I'm currently reading through his most famous creation, the Matt Scudder series. They start in the 70s, and Scudder has matured his way through almost twenty books to the present day.

Matt Scudder is an alcoholic ex-cop turned private investigator haunted by an awful trauma from his past. Yes, sounds like a B-movie but Block rides the cliché and does what every Grand Master must do, write the same old crime story, but differently. The appeal is in the writing, in the character, in the atmosphere.

That’s why the film adaptation of the fifth Scudder book, Eight Million Ways to Die (1986) was awful, despite amazing credits (including Jeff Bridges in the starring role). When you simply take the plot, and throw a grizzled detective into the thick of it, you lose what makes the Matt Scudder stories. I’m sure it would have been better served in the golden age of noir movies. Recently they’ve adapted A Walk Among the Tombstones starring Liam Neeson, and I have no interest in seeing it. (A reason I rewrote this blogpost is that I originally talked so much about the movies, now I don’t see why they need mentioning at all. Block is a writer of novels, after all).

Scudder’s first story, The Sins of the Fathers (1976) is a flawlessly written mystery and a solid introduction to the character. The following four books run along to a similar formula.

The style and character develop from the sixth novel onward. In fact, the sixth novel, When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, really makes an impression. First of all, what a title (deriving from a line in the Dave Van Ronk song, Last Call), and the night-crawler atmosphere and dead-beat characterisation are spot on. Block’s protagonist, his only acquaintances other barflies, shuffles morosely through the mystery weighed down by regret and his dependence on booze. The following novel, Out on the Cutting Edge (1989), also struck me as an excellent stand alone crime noir.

Now to head his Hit Man series!

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