I’m taking the day off today, and my course is clear: rereading some favorite books by Lawrence Block, who turned 80 yesterday.
Block has long been one of my favorite authors, especially for three series characters: the alcoholic quasi-P.I. Matthew Scudder, gentleman thief Bernie Rhondenbarr, and introspective hit man Keller.
All the novels offer sardonic commentary on human misbehavior, and most of them concern the island of Manhattan. Indeed, Block “owns” New York City like no other crime writer.
Scudder’s New York City is a jungle, at times terrifying and ultra-violent. For many of his fans this is the definitive modern “tough P.I.” series. Bernie’s New York City is a ribald playground of silly cons and priceless art. This genial set of tall tales pairs neatly with the Dortmunder series by Block’s old friend, Donald Westlake. Keller’s New York City is a existential question, a quirky series of choices where the answer usually ends up being, “Yep, I’ll kill this person, too.” Yet, somehow, after reading a Keller book, one feels happy and refreshed.
For first time readers I’d suggest When the Sacred Ginmill Closes for Scudder, The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling for Bernie, and Hit Man for Keller.
There are also many Block standalones. A stone classic for deep Block fans is the profoundly noir espionage saga Such Men are Dangerous, published a half-century ago under the pen name Paul Kavanagh. Just recently The Girl With the Deep Blue Eyes offered a delightful riff on the pulp tradition that started Block’s career.
In the end, we read Block for his voice. Laughter and suspense are unforced. Each sentence just falls into place after the next.
It’s a big birthday, one of those that ends in a zero, but it is Block’s readers who are are celebrating, for there is not just a new Scudder novella on the way but also a graphic novel adaptation of Eight Million Ways to Die by John K. Snyder III that Block himself says is exceptionally good. I loved the Darwyn Cooke adaptations of the Richard Stark books so I’m looking forward to checking out Snyder’s take on Scudder.
Well, that’s all for now, it’s my day off, and I need to get back to The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling. But I’ve gotten to know Larry a bit in the last few years and wanted to give a birthday shout. And: truly: if you’ve never cracked open a Block classic, what are you waiting for?
Lawrence Block blindfold test.