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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Several Hits, No Misses in New Block "Novel" About Assassin John Keller

By Lawrence Block
352 pages
(Mulholland Books; Oct. 8, 2013)
ISBN-10: 0316127345
ISBN-13: 978-0316127349

Nicholas Edwards lives in New Orleans with his wife and young daughter, renovates houses for a living and collects international stamps in his spare time.

But in his former home town of New York, Edwards is better known as John Keller, a veteran killer who murders people for money.

Keller is the creation of Edgar-winning crime author Lawrence Block, the author of more than fifty novels in a career that dates back to 1958 when Block got his start by grinding out porno tales, some of them in collaboration with the late Donald E. Westlake. Rated as a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America, Block is one of America's best-known practitioners of the crime novel and has won multiple Edgar and Shamus awards for his stories about cops, private eyes and criminals.

Lawrence Block: The author worked with Donald E. Westlake when he was starting out and has created a couple of profession criminal protagonists similar to Westlake's robber, Parker.

Like Parker, the professional thief created by his former partner Westlake, Block's Keller and his fictional burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr are criminals, though Keller is the more successful of the two.

Hit Me, Block's latest Keller offering, is an episodic work, less a novel than a group of novella-length stories loosely related to each other. Each features Keller receiving an assignment from his "agent," a woman named Dot, and all but one of his contracts is concluded within the pages of the book.

The novel is well-structured, humorous and fast-paced. It is the first Block I have read, but it is one of the best-crafted books I have enjoyed recently and it has me looking forward to reading a lot more of his stuff.

Keller's obsessive search for rare and not-so-rare postage stamps (his collection is limited to non-U.S. stamps issued prior to 1940) figures in all but one of the murders in this novel, usually as a pretext for traveling to the region where the victim is to be killed.

I know what you are probably thinking: "A stamp collecting hit-man? Really?"

It's true. And while philately may sound like a dull element to include in a crime story, Block writes about the subject with a light touch that informs the reader about the subject in a surprisingly painless way. The stamp-collecting back story not only helps drive each tale's narrative, but does so without gumming it up.

Trust me -- it works.

The challenge in each of Keller's assignments in Hit Me is finding a way to eliminate the victim without being caught or leaving clues that investigators can use to track him down. In some cases, that involves penetrating a tough security system or getting around bodyguards; in others, the trick is to mislead the police about who committed the crime -- and to obscure the identity of the people who actually hired Keller to commit it.

Unlike "tea cozy" mysteries in which rare poisons, toxic vermin or ingenious death traps dispatch the victims, Keller uses whatever makeshift weapon is at hand to commit his crimes.  In only one of the tales that make up Hit Me is the mechanism of the assassination more exotic than a kitchen knife.

Books based on the activities of anti-heroes like Keller, Westlake's Parker or Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley can be problematic: when the protagonist is a crook, particularly one who doesn't blanch at murder, it is frequently difficult to make him or her sympathetic to the reader. But Block has come up with a formula that works nicely in this book by making sure that each person Keller rubs out has convincingly earned his or her death, with the result that the killer -- even though a criminal --  actually appears to be functioning as an agent of rough justice.

This means that the reader feels no remorse while cheering Keller on. As a result, what suspense is generated by the book stems from the reader's concern whether Keller, an affable and dryly witty fellow who follows a strict albeit somewhat twisted ethical code, somehow will slip up and be captured, not whether the victim survives.

Block also manages to make the murders themselves remarkably bloodless: the greater part of each segment of Hit Me involves Keller's work in setting up the assignment, locating the target and preparing for the kill.  

The actual execution generally takes place off-camera and is briefly described after the fact, either in Keller's conversations with Dot or with his wife, Julia.

Because he wastes almost no time recreating the crime, Block not only spares the reader from blood and gore but also is able to concentrate his considerable story-telling talents on the personalities of the people his killer deals with. He manages to capture his characters through brief, vivid descriptions that sometimes involve only a word or two, and by putting tightly written  dialog in their mouths that drives the story forward in a dry and amusing fashion.

For example, in one of the stories, Keller is discussing
a Catholic monastery abbot who has become involved in a variety of criminal activities including money laundering for organized crime and the sale of stolen human organs on the international medical black market. At one point in the conversation, Dot asks rhetorically what Monks normally do.

"Pray," Keller guessed. "Bake bread. Make cordials."
"Benedictine? Chartreuse?"
"Monks make those? I thought that was Seagram's."
"Monks started it. Maybe they sold the business. I think basically they pray and maybe work in the garden."
"The garden variety monks work in the garden," she suggested. "The laundry variety monks keep themselves occupied with money and kidneys. See, the abbot was in cahoots with all the politicians."
"Felonious Monks," Keller said. "Dot, don't you don't think that was funny?"
"I chuckled a little," she said.

In another segment, he is chatting with his wife Julia, a former Catholic church member, about his little daughter, Jenny.

"I never asked you if you wanted Jenny baptized," he remarks.

"Don't you think I'd have said something? Do you even know what baptism is for?"
"Isn't it to make you a Catholic?"
"No, darling, guilt is what makes you a Catholic."

It isn't often that I laugh out loud when reading about the exploits of a paid killer; while enjoying Hit Me, however, I did exactly that -- frequently. I ended up reading several sections to my wife, who doesn't even like this type of story; as it turned out, she laughed, too, so I guess  the book is genuinely funny.

In a couple of the stories that comprise Block's loose novel, sheer happenstance plays a role: Keller actually murders the wrong person in one of the segments. The satisfyingly ironic way in which that  seemingly intractable error works itself out simply has to be read to be believed.

Though Hit Me lacks the coherence -- and in some ways, the catharsis -- of a more traditionally constructed novel, its episodic structure actually has its advantages in our busy age when finding the time to read a 300-plus page book can be a challenge: each of the stories that comprise the total are long enough for a single sit-down. This means that, while the book holds the reader's attention, it is broken up into small enough portions that it can be enjoyed over the course of several evenings.

According to Block's website, his other professional criminal, second-story man Bernie Rhodenbarr (Burglars Can't Be Choosers, 1977; The Burglar on the Prowl, 2004), is scheduled to make a new appearance this Christmas. The gentleman thief will be the protagonist in The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons, available both as a trade paperbook or an eBook through Amazon on Dec. 25.

My advice? Check it out. The author has earned his many honors and I am looking forward to his next offering.

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