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Spotlight on: Lawrence Block

Bernie Rhodenbarr series:
The Burglar Who Painted Like Mondrian
The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza
The Burglar Who Thought He Was Bogart
The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams
Burglars Can't Be Choosers

Matthew Scudder series:
Everybody Dies
In the Midst of Death
A Stab in the Dark
A Ticket to the Boneyard

Hard Case Crime Novels:
A Diet of Treacle (aka Pads Are for Passion)
The Girl with the Long Green Heart
Grifter's Game
Killing Castro (aka Fidel Castro Assassinated)
Lucky at Cards (aka The Sex Shuffle)

Non-Series Novel:
Ronald Rabbit is a Dirty Old Man

Telling Lies for Fun and Profit (writing instruction)

To arrange to have products considered for review, send an email to craigsbookclub@yahoo.com.

A Diet of Treacle by Lawrence Block Lawrence Block, A Diet of Treacle

     "Once upon a time there were three little sisters," the Dormouse began in a great hurry; "and their names were Elsie, Lacie, and Tillie; and they lived at the bottom of a well—"
     "What did they live on?" said Alice, who always took a great interest in questions of eating and drinking.
     "They lived on treacle," said the Dormouse, after thinking a minute or two.
     "They couldn't have done that, you know," Alice gently remarked; "they'd have been ill."
     "So they were," said the Dormouse; "very ill."
— from Through the Looking Glass
The appearance of another "new" Lawrence Block title under the Hard Case Crime banner has become an annual occurence I invariable look forward to. It can't last forever, presumably, but reading stories like Lucky at Cards, The Girl with the Long Green Heart, and Grifter's Game gives one an inexpensive education in the life of the con artist.

A Diet of Treacle (originally published as Pads Are for Passion under the house name Sheldon Lord) is a little different — it's a more traditional type of noir involving a trio of under-30s in 1960s Greenwich Village. Joe Milani is a vet of Korea who revels in the coolness he gets from a good marijuana high. Leon "Shank" Marsten, Joe's roommate, is just looking for his next deal or his next lay. Both of them surround themselves with Hip.

Anita Carbone, however, is very Square — a good little Italian girl whom Joe meets one night at The Palermo and can't get out of his mind afterward — she has the life he wishes he could return to after his having turned on and dropped out. But Anita wants what Joe has — unpredictability, what she sees as excitement.

A Diet of Treacle is much more a character piece than Block's other Hard Case Crime titles. It is also the first of his "sleaze" titles I've read that actually features a fair amount of sex talk — though a good portion of that concerns so-called "promiscuous virgins" (girls experienced in sex every way but the main route).

Block's style really captures the voice and spirit of the darker side of Beat and Hip, but in a way that makes me unsure if his research came from life or from other books. Luckily, while the main focus is on these three characters and their individual sex and drug experiences, there is a certain level of tension over the proceedings: we know something is going to happen, just not what.

In fact, when all hell finally breaks loose, it is a bit of a relief. Having really enjoyed Grifter's Game, The Girl with the Long Green Heart, and Lucky at Cards, this one comes across as comparatively weak, but A Diet of Treacle is still vintage Lawrence Block, and Block is always eminently readable.

Lucky at Cards by Lawrence Block Lawrence Block, Lucky at Cards

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. -- from Lucky at Cards

If your publishing imprint's best-selling novels were by a particular author, you'd keep putting out novels by that author, wouldn't you? Well, that must be what's going on over at Hard Case Crime, because Lucky at Cards is the third "lost" Lawrence Block classic they've come out with. Lucky for us, it's another doozy, but what else could you possibly expect from the master of the crime novel?

Bill Maynard is an ex-magician who found his way into the card-sharp business. He upset the wrong people in his last town, so he's moved temporarily to New York, following an opportunity. But he's about to get very distracted by another, much more unexpected, opportunity -- one "with hooker's hips and queen-sized breasts," and one that's easily as dangerous as getting aces and eights.

Lucky at Cards was originally released under the title The Sex Shuffle and the byline "Sheldon Lord," and it was published in 1964, the year before The Girl with the Long Green Heart, Block's previous Hard Case Crime outing. It shares a more optimistic tone with that novel that is a far cry from the much darker Grifter's Game (a.k.a. Mona) from just a couple of years before. This is apparently a huge coup for the Hard Case gang as Block has been notoriously shy when it comes to his early pseudonymous novels.

Its brisk pacing is a big attraction, but Lawrence Block's forte has always been his wonderfully complex plots, especially in these early novels. The likable, relatable characters like Matthew Scudder and Bernie Rhodenbarr came later -- guys like Bill Maynard in Lucky at Cards are just slightly nonaverage Joes with very healthy imaginations. Hell, they think like novelists, with their convoluted scenarios involving multiple character roles and layers of deception requiring huge amounts of footwork and no discernible sleep. No real person could pull all this off. And while this may be a drawback for some readers, I get a lot of fun out of watching these unrealistic, but still somehow highly plausible, situations play out. As long as Hard Case Crime keeps discovering these gems, I'll keep reading them.

The Girl with the Long Green Heart by Lawrence Block Lawrence Block, The Girl with the Long Green Heart

It was a crime novel from Lawrence Block that initiated the Hard Case Crime line (a new imprint from Dorchester Publications and Winterfall LLC that focuses on books written in the style of the old pulp crime novels) in 2004, and Grifter's Game was a nearly perfect choice. It set the tone for works to come while making a terrific impression on its own terms.

Now Ardai and company have returned with another fantastic Block reprint, again with a grifting theme. I love a good long-con tale, and The Girl with the Long Green Heart is one of the best. In terms of pure entertainment value (and educational value, if you're an aspiring criminal like me), it belongs side-by-side with The Sting.

The title character is Evvie Stone, secretary (among other things) to millionaire Wallace J. Gunderman. He promised to marry Evvie a long time ago, but never came through with the ring. However, that hasn't stopped him from getting his milk for free, so to speak, and Evvie is primed for revenge.

Enter Doug Rance and John Hayden, a couple of long-time con artists who work terrifically together due to their complementary styles. They've hatched an ingenious plan guaranteed to relieve Gunderman of a hundred thousand of his precious dollars, and Evvie couldn't be more eager to help them out from the inside. But is she too eager?

Block devises a con so well, it makes you wonder if he hasn't been involved in a little "research" himself (in addition to his lock-picking expertise as shown in his Bernie Rhodenbarr series). The author has a way with words unlike any other author. Written in the first person, The Girl with the Long Green Heart has a lot of internal monologue from John's point-of-view. Much of it has to do with the planning of the job, but a preponderence is simply one man's thoughts when thrust into a set of situations he did not plan on, and Block manages to somehow make it all utterly riveting.

In which case, The Girl with the Long Green Heart reads like lightning -- I was finished before I realized I was over halfway through. And it's that kind of readability that brings me back to Block (and Hard Case Crime) time and time again, whatever the book. He's not always the most original plotter (his Rhodenbarrs owe a huge debt to Agatha Christie and his Chip Harrison "mysteries" are just softcore Nero Wolfe rip-offs), but his distinctive voice ensures familiarity and his pure skill at storytelling promises a fun read every time -- the primary reason why he is one of my favorite authors.

Grifter's Game by Lawrence Block Lawrence Block, Grifter's Game

(Hard Case Crime is a new imprint from Dorchester Publications and Winterfall LLC that focuses on books written in the style of the old pulp crime novels. They will be publishing new works in the old style as well as reprinting classics from the masters, like Lawrence Block's Grifter's Game, which was originally published as Mona and now has the author's preferred title.)

Joe Marlin spends his days skipping out on hotel bills and double-crossing gold-diggers; not the best of lives, but it works for him. One day, after lifting some luggage to check in to his next hotel with (if you go without, they pay closer attention), he discovers a large cache of heroin. Later that night, he meets the married Mona Brassard, and they get to know each other better.

Now, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that the heroin and the heroine are somehow connected, but Block keeps the pace of Grifter's Game moving so fast that it doesn't matter. Joe is quickly in love -- and in over his head -- and this portrait of love between the hardest of hearts can only end in disaster. We just don't know what form it will take -- other than that mentioned in the tagline, of course. (I love those floating eyes in the cover illustration by Chuck Pyle, by the way.)

Grifter's Game was an excellent choice to inaugurate the new Hard Case Crime line. Since it comes from very near that period, the details are fresh and natural: phone exchanges that begin with words, Joe's lunch in an Automat, even the mention that "the elevator was self-service" plants us right in the middle of the time -- and this was at the beginning of Block's career. (Marlin's skill with locks predicts Block's later Burglar series, and his Matthew Scudder is an example of what happens when genre-dictated drinking gets out-of-hand.)

Lawrence Block is one of my favorite authors for that skill with detail. His insertion of humor in the story as a necessary means to break the tension is another reason (Marlin's response to a juicer pitchman is priceless). But, in the end, what I like best about the author is his creativity. A book like this could have ended in any of a dozen ways, all of them somewhat predictable, but Block comes up with one that absolutely knocks you to the floor, turning Grifter's Game from a really good story into a surprising and terrific one.

Lawrence Block, Ronald Rabbit is a Dirty Old Man

Faithful readers know that we are big fans of Lawrence Block here. I've read more than the average fan should be expected to, including two of his four Chip Harrison "mysteries." Really just erotic comedies with a crime-themed plot, they are nonetheless entertaining due to Block's way with words. During a recent reading of Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print, I came across mention of an early novel originally written under a pseudonym called Ronald Rabbit is a Dirty Old Man. Now, how could I not want to read something with that title?

When Laurence Clarke ("'Laurence' with a 'u', 'Clarke' with an 'e'") loses his job, his best friend, and his wife (to his best friend) all in one day, he takes revenge into his own hands. Though he has been unable to write for what seems like months, manipulative letters effortlessly begin to flow from his typewriter. He has nothing to lose, so why not go all the way, right? This leads to a lot of joy for the reader as Laurence describes the adventures he goes on with all of the free time he has, corresponding with his wife, his ex-wife, his best friend, his ex-boss, the boss's secretary, and so on.

Block has said that he wrote the entirety of Ronald Rabbit is a Dirty Old Man in four days. The fluidity of the prose affirms his statement that "one letter kept leading to another." This sort of entanglement of epistles could only happen properly if allowed to be totally organic. It's not for the kids, as a good portion of the letters detail his sexual escapades. Whether the events in the letters are true is left up to the reader's imagination, making it almost an interactive experience. Ronald Rabbit is a Dirty Old Man shows fans of his numerous crime novels yet another side of the mind of Lawrence Block. It may be a little rude, but that doesn't make it any less fun.

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on Ex Libris Reviews. Copyright 2005. Reprinted with permission.

Lawrence Block, Telling Lies for Fun and Profit

There are two books on writing that I always keep on hand: Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury and Telling Lies for Fun and Profit by Lawrence Block. I can always depend on them to inspire me to write more when my momentum has flagged for whatever reason, usually insecurity.

I really like Block's conversational style. I know this is cliche, but I often feel as if he could be speaking directly to me and addressing my own problems. I find this, among other things, to be very comforting, thus allowing me to let go and just write.

He presents simple solutions to common problems, also inspiring me to go try them out, having never approached the problem in that way before. I find Telling Lies for Fun and Profit to be very useful in my quest to be a writer, as he seems to have had the same problems I do. This sends the positive message that these problems are universal, and all you have to do is work your way through them, because all writers have the same issues to deal with. It is also very comforting.

I would recommend Telling Lies for Fun and Profit to anyone struggling with the need to write but not finding the nerve to just settle down and do it; and also for anyone else just needing a little boost.

Burglars Can't Be Choosers by Lawrence Block Lawrence Block, Burglars Can't Be Choosers

Lawrence Block is in my top five of favorite authors. His books always manage to make my brain feel as if it has just had a cup of hot cocoa, his Burglar series especially so. The books about Bernie Rhodenbarr are derivative and often stilted, but Block makes the character so appealing, I can't help but like them.

Burglars Can't Be Choosers is the first in the series. I seem to have started with #4 or 5 and gone from there. This is the first early one I have read. Bernie has not yet bought his bookstore, has not yet met his Lesbian pet-groomer friend. And has not yet begun gathering all the suspects around for the solution, Agatha Christie style.

So Burglars Can't Be Choosers isn't as interesting as later entries in the series -- there's not as much going on. Bernie spends most of the novel in an apartment -- one that's not his own, of course -- thinking to himself. Sure he meets a girl, and sure he has a murder to solve, but the whole experience is just not as good as the ones that follow. But, even with that said, I was never bored with the book, Block just hadn't hit his stride with this series yet.

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on Ex Libris Reviews. Copyright 2002. Reprinted with permission.

The Burglar Who Thought He Was Bogart by Lawrence Block In the Midst of Death by Lawrence Block A Stab in the Dark by Lawrence Block Lawrence Block, The Burglar Who Thought He Was Bogart
Lawrence Block, In the Midst of Death
Lawrence Block, A Stab in the Dark

Occasionally, I get on a Lawrence Block kick. Never enough to finish a series, but enough to get through a book or three. I never buy new, so my series reading is sporadic at best and never in order.

First was The Burglar Who Thought He Was Bogart, which, while certainly not the best book in the Bernie Rhodenbarr series, is still entertaining in the way I expect from Block. Bernie Rhodenbarr is back with his wisecracking and his lockpicking, this time with a convoluted plot involving Humphrey Bogart movies and an attempted country called Anatruria. It's all really unimportant, and the main clue, the word "caphob," turns out to be the key to the solution, but in a really obscure way.

It's really too complicated for its own good, and Block has definitely done better, but I read the Burglar books for the reason anyone reads a series novel, for the main character and the regular supporting cast: Carolyn, the lesbian dog groomer; and Ray, the ubiquitous policeman. Oh, yes, and Raffles, hard-working, toilet-using feline about town.

The Bogart references are fun, too, especially for a film fan.

Next, I delved into the Matt Scudder series with two early books: In the Midst of Death and A Stab in the Dark. It's very interesting to read about Scudder's life in this non-linear way, because I already have insight into his future actions. In the later ones, Matt is a recovering alcoholic; in the fifth book in the series, Eight Million Ways to Die, he begins his treatment after deciding to do something about it. However, in the earlier In the Midst of Death, he doesn't yet seem to be aware that he even has a problem. Although he's never far from his next drink, when someone mentions the word "alcoholic," he rationalizes it away.

Here, Scudder investigates the murder of a prostitute. The act has been pinned on a cop who was out to expose corruption. He betrayed his brothers so they're going to let him go up for the killing. In between, Scudder philosophizes and drinks a lot. In fact, it's not until A Stab in the Dark that he begins to realize he may have a problem when one of the suspects he questions looks straight at him and says, "You're a drunk, aren't you?"

A Stab in the Dark focuses on the investigation of a woman's murder -- presumably by the Icepick Killer, who denies it. Scudder is hired by the woman's father, then during the investigation, the father tries to pay him off to stop. This, of course, only makes Scudder more curious.

Block is always good for a fine yarn. He's a quick read, terrific at characterization and dialogue, and a master plotter. These two series are his finest work and you couldn't go wrong with any entry in the lot.

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on Ex Libris Reviews. Copyright 2003. Reprinted with permission.

The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza by Lawrence Block The Burglar Who Painted Like Mondrian by Lawrence Block The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams by Lawrence Block Lawrence Block, The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza
Lawrence Block, The Burglar Who Painted Like Mondrian
Lawrence Block, The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams

Lawrence Block's Bernie Rhodenbarr series is all about the characters. The style is highly reminscent of other series, particularly the "gathering all the suspects together to reveal the murderer" ending, which Bernie does in every book. So, unless the characters are appealing, you're not going over any new territory, so why bother? I keep returning because Bernie, Carolyn, and Ray are such a fun people--folks you wouldn't mind spending some real time with. Another reason is because he owns a bookshop, I learn about rare books (one of my interests), and, well, it's always good to keep in mind things that are worth stealing, assuming this writing thing doesn't pan out. The way Block writes it, burglary looks like a nicely independent occupation, assuming you don't mind spending a little time in jail. Seriously, though, I don't think I have the nerves for it.

The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza involves a rare coin, the 1913 V-Nickel, of which only five copies exist in the world. Whether it's true, I don't know, only that the characters insist that "everybody" knows about it. I didn't, but then coins aren't my thing. Bernie and Carolyn break in to rob the place as the owners are out of town, but someone's already been there and ransacked it. He takes the coin and a few other things to Abel, his fence, who takes it on consignment and promptly gets murdered. The owner's wife also turns up murdered and Bernie is the prime suspect because evidence points to his M.O.

This is the way it always happens. Bernie breaks in, somebody gets killed, and he has to solve the crime to clear his name. Helping out is Ray, the cop, with whom Bernie has an antagonistic friendship: Ray is always out to get Bernie collared but usually knows when he didn't do it.

The details of the plots are really unimportant, the fun lies in watching the action unfold. Block has a devious way of writing action without letting you in on details too early. Like this exchange from The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza:

"You changed the subject again."
"I guess I did."
"Well, change it back again. Who killed Wanda and Abel."
I gave up and told her.
And that's it. The scene changes and we go on clueless. It's like a movie in its crafting, which makes sense, as I gather Block is a fan of old movies, particularly from the 1940s and 1950s. The "Burglar" books aren't about to win any awards, but they're light and fun and quickly read. The action flows smoothly and Block writes tightly, wasting few words. They're always full of details, though, and so one can learn a great deal about whatever kind of item is the novel's subject. I learned a lot about art from The Burglar Who Painted Like Mondrian and about baseball cards from The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams (most interesting because I live in the Boston area, where the great Red Sox batter is considered a hero to millions who don't even follow baseball -- and those are rare).

The Bernie Rhodenbarr stories are perfect airplane, beach, or train reading because you can stop easily in the middle and pick them up again later with no confusion of plotline, or of feeling like you're missing something. Few characters are discussed in any detail and, one of the things I like, they all have very different names and so are easy to tell apart (unlike Elizabeth George's Payment in Blood where two of the lead females are named Jo and Joy, and two males are named David and Davies). So pick one up--any one, it doesn't really matter--and dive into the larcenous world of Bernard Grimes Rhodenbarr, The Burglar Who Reads Like Gangbusters.

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on Ex Libris Reviews. Copyright 2003. Reprinted with permission.

A Ticket to the Boneyard by Lawrence Block Lawrence Block, A Ticket to the Boneyard

Lawrence Block is the greatest author of dark crime fiction (sometimes known under the moniker shared by its film counterpart: noir) writing today, and his Matthew Scudder series is the best reason why. One of literature's great flawed heroes, Scudder manages to repeatedly cross the line of the law, yet continues to endear himself to readers.

On top of that, he's a recovering alcoholic who always seems to be just seconds away from taking the drink that will knock him off the wagon he has struggled to stay on since Eight Million Ways to Die (three books before this eighth entry). Block makes Matt's repeated visits to AA meetings somehow seem interesting and folds them seamlessly into whatever case he happens to be working on.

In A Ticket to the Boneyard, the case involves himself, his prostitute girlfriend, and a serial killer he put away twelve years prior (through a distinct massaging of evidence) -- James Leo Motley. Motley's promise to kill Scudder "and all your women" is being kept -- and in some very unexpected ways.

That Block stretches the minimal plot of A Ticket to the Boneyard over 330 pages without showing signs of bloat is a testament to this Mystery Writers of America Grand Master's skill. He is also careful to create a villain who, oftentimes, is smarter than our hero. Even the solution to the plot is not the kind of thing one would expect to find in a "lighter" mystery that plays by the rules -- the reason why the average writer grows stale after a few books and Block is still going strong after more than 50.

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on Ex Libris Reviews. Copyright 2005. Reprinted with permission.

Everybody Dies by Lawrence Block Lawrence Block, Everybody Dies

First off, I'd just like to say that reading two of these books in a row was not the best decision I've ever made. They mostly consist of the angst of detective protagonist Matthew Scudder, and while they didn't affect my mood in quite the same way as Jimmy Corrigan, a cloud nevertheless hung over the proceedings for an hour or so.

Early on in Everybody Dies, Scudder lets us in on the fact that the story he is telling belongs less to him and more to Mick Ballou, his Irish gangster friend who speaks in a brogue that you can hear coming off the page -- just another reason to praise Block's skill. But it is Scudder's tale, as well, and more of his friends die -- in fact, two people that have been vital in his life.

Everybody Dies is the perfect choice of a title for this entry, not just because it's a fact of life, but because death's existence permeates the story. There have always been multiple deaths crossing Scudder's path, but here they weigh much heavier on the proceedings, seeming somehow more serious than in even other Scudder novels.

When he won't back down from an investigation, he becomes a target, and thus feels responsible for the deaths of those who were unlucky enough to be in the same place as him at the same time. Matt is so down throughout most of this book (and the series seems to be getting darker and darker as it progresses) that I began to wonder if Block weren't setting him up for a suicide at the end of the series. (His one grounding factor appears to be his relationship with his wife Elaine.)

Throughout, though, he remains a fascinatingly complex and gripping character and I'm not about to stop reading about his exploits. Nevertheless, after two in a row, I'm ready for a break.

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on Ex Libris Reviews. Copyright 2005. Reprinted with permission.

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