Saturday, September 17, 2016

Lawrence Block

I was introduced to Grand Master crime writer, Lawrence Block, from reading his very fun Bernie Rhodenbarr series. I picked up my first Bernie mystery a few years ago, browsing in a second-hand bookshop, 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.

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 clich√© 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. (This is why the film adaptations of his books have never been any good. When you simply take the plot, and throw a grizzled detective into the thick of it, you lose what makes the Matt Scudder stories)

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 read his Hit Man series!

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