Re: RARA-AVIS: Lawrence Block months

From: John Williams (
Date: 01 Nov 2007 wrote:
> November and December are Lawrence Block months here at Rara-Avis.
> And I'm honored to introduce him, not that he needs an introduction here
> (and not that I'm a particular authority on him, but I have been a long
> time fan). So I thought I'd offer a brief summary of his career as a
> starting point for discussion.

In a similar spirit here's a short article I wrote about Block for GQ a decade or so back. It's pretty general as I couldn't assume the readership would know much about him. There are some interesting outtakes which I'll dig out over the next month.


Laurence Block looks like a villain. Not a real villain, not a dodgy shell-suited geezer with a shooter, but a movie supervillain. With his egg-head, luxuriant moustache and soft, faintly sinister voice, Block would make an ideal criminal mastermind.

Which is appropriate enough, really. After all Block is a man who has written a series of bestselling novels about a lovable burglar, and is currently toying with a book of stories about a man named Keller, who he describes as 'a wistful hitman'.

Laurence Block is a survivor of the golden age of pulp fiction. He published his first story back in 1957, when he was still in college, and spent the next ten years pumping out a whole slew of novels under assorted names - "A lot of spicy novels" he recalls, talking over a plate of curried vegetables in a west London tandoori palace, "But mostly crime fiction of one sort or another."

Over the years that 'one sort or another' has gradually boiled down to two of the most enduringly popular series in American crime. First came the Matt Scudder novels, dark, troubled detective novels of an alcoholic ex-cop, a man whose cases are all lost causes, the forgotten murders of the Naked City. Then came the Burglar novels - warm-hearted capers featuring second-hand bookseller and thief Bernie Rhodenbarr, the Raffles of Greenwich Village.

So how does one man write two such dissimilar series? "I don't find it surprising that I can write such different kinds of books, both light and dark," he replies, "I find it surprising that everyone else doesn't. Most people have more than one side to them."

The new Matt Scudder novel, _Even The Wicked_, the twisting tale of an unusually public-spirited psychopath, is the thirteenth in the series. Twenty years on from his first appearance Matt Scudder is a changed man. Back in the seventies he was an alcoholic ex-cop, seperated for his family and living out of a midtown hotel. Now he's a sober and successful P.I. in a steady relationship. It's a transformation that has its parallels in his creator's own life.

"Yes," says Block,"When I started writing those novels I was living on that block in New York (that Scudder lived on) and I was recently seperated from my then wife and family. So that was a parallel, though Scudder is not by any means me. As for my own drinking. I can't too much talk about it, but I can say that I used to drink rather like Scudder and I don't drink at all these days. At first I thought hard drinking would be a part of Scudder's character, I never had any idea there would be a time he would stop drinking. But in the fourth book it becomes clear that he has a problem and the fifth book is about that problem, inasmuch as it's about anything."

Since then the Scudder novels have often been as much concerned with Scudder's battle to stay sober as with his crimebusting exploits. I wondered if he'd been influenced in this respect by James Lee Burke's Robicheaux novels, works likewise preoccupied with the need to take life one day at a time: "No, the books are so different, the only common tie is that both detective are alcoholics who are sober now." he says, before laughing and observing that "It's getting difficult these days to find an American detective who isn't in some 12 step program or other."

One fictional protagonist who isn't is Block's burglar, Bernie Rhodenbarr, a man whose only addiction is to breaking into other people's apartments. Block explains that Bernie wasn't so much conceived as an antidote to the darkness of the Scudder books, but as a direct product of them: "I'd started a novel where Scudder's client was a burglar, but that didn't work out. Then I though I'd try it without Scudder, and with the burglar himself as the protagonist. And I had no idea in advance that I was going to make it light and funny. The character simply appeared on the page that way.".

Another way Block didn't anticipate the character appearing was the way he did in the one movie made from the series. "Bernie was played by Whoopi Goldberg!" laughs Block, still incredulous years after the event,
"I can only assume that I didn't describe Bernie fully enough and they made a natural mistake!" he goes on, tongue firmly in cheek. "I'm just grateful that my efforts have been in print rather than screenwriting."

Hollywood, however, has not yet given up on Laurence Block. There are assorted movie and TV projects in the offing, but Block is content to sit back and let others worry about that while he carries on with what he does best - and as well as any writer alive - which is to write classic popular fiction that always respects his readers' desire to be entertained but never insults their intelligence.

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This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : 01 Nov 2007 EDT