Review: The Crime of Our Lives


I haven’t really discussed Westlake’s colleague, sometime-collaborator, and close lifelong friend, Lawrence Block very much at all here, and there’s a reason for that.  I haven’t yet read enough of his work to feel comfortable discussing it.  I’ve read several Matthew Scudder novels, some of the Kellers, and three of his standalone books.   I’ve read enough to know that 1)He’s more than interesting, prolific and diverse enough to merit a blog just like this one here and 2)I probably won’t be the one writing it.   Well really, isn’t one blog like this enough for one person?   I’d welcome the flattery of imitation, so anybody who wants to set up a Block Blog devoted to reviewing everything he ever wrote should feel free to launch right into it.  I’d be a regular visitant.

I’m not quite 100% sold on Scudder yet, but I get the allure of the character, and I’ll come back to him.  I rather liked Keller–my personal favorite in that very tiny crime fiction sub-genre of the Hitman as Series Character (I think Max Allan Collins’ Quarry might be the only other contender?)–but lost interest after the second book, at least for now–though let me say, I’d have wholly supported Mr. Block had he chosen to sue the producers of Grosse Pointe Blank for plagiarism.

I am increasingly intrigued by the Evan Tanner series, which sounds bloody fascinating–I have to get some of the books.  I tried to start reading Bernie Rhodenbarr.  He’s a bit too cozy for me.  Like Westlake, Block has a lot of different fanbases, who don’t necessarily have that much to say to each other–they are both large writers, containing multitudes.  I don’t yet feel personally motivated to get to learn each and every nook and cranny (or crook and nanny) of Block’s work, as I have with Westlake.   As Block himself demonstrates in this book,  how one responds to this or that crime fiction author is very personal, and there’s no point getting worked up about it.  It is what it is.

Strangely, given that Block, perhaps more than any other contemporary hardboiled crime fiction author (Westlake included) is known for a variety of series characters, I’ve been most taken with his solo efforts, particularly The Girl With the Long Green Heart, which I consider a small masterpiece, and I hope there’s more like it waiting for me once I can start working my way through his oeuvre in earnest.  You understand, needing to reread several Westlake books a month does take its toll on one’s discretionary reading time.

Like Westlake, he hides behind a variety of masks (some of them female–Westlake never took it that far).  He’s even harder to pin down, in many ways.  But he’s also a great deal more confiding, and, I now discover–gossipy.   The man likes to spill the beans–but he waits until you’re dead before he unloads the really juicy stuff he knows about you.

This book is self-evidently a reaction to and something of a companion piece for The Getaway Car, which I’ve already reviewed, some months back.  Mr. Block was a most impressive and welcome presence at an event touting the publication of that book at The Mysterious Bookshop, down on Warren Street.   Probably The Crime of Our Lives was already in the works back then, or at least it was in his mind to put it out there.

It wouldn’t have taken long to compile, because as Block cheerily admits, there wasn’t that much to compile–it’s mainly just forewards he wrote for various reprint editions of books by writers he admired.  Donald Westlake wrote quite a variety of non-fiction in his life, for an editor like Levi Stahl to pick through–Lawrence Block mainly stayed in the fiction column.  But it’s an equivalently long book, though from a stylistic point of view, not quite so substantial.  Westlake put a lot of interesting spins on his non-fiction–for example, the piece he wrote explaining the origins of the third Dortmunder novel, which is itself a cunning work of meta-fiction–or his interview of his various pseudonymous selves–nothing half so clever here, and nothing so frustratingly evasive either.

Block isn’t playing mind-games with us.   He’s just going to tell us what he thinks, and he’s going to give us the skinny on a lot of very famous names–again, only those who are safely in the grave.   To Lawrence Block “Don’t speak ill of the dead” is a stupid maxim–those are the only people you can’t harm by speaking ill of them.  Not that all or even most of what he has to say about his deceased colleagues is bad, by any means.  It’s mainly complimentary, but some of it is damned near scandalous in nature, and he’s not pulling any punches when that’s the case.  And far as I’m concerned, that’s the best part of the book.   There’s not a lot of material like this out there, and it fills in a lot of blank spaces for those of us who are curious about the people who wrote the books we’re reading.   And I’m guessing anybody reading this blog is at least a bit curious about that.  Inquiring minds want to know.

See, he has this brilliant insight, expressed once or twice in the pages of this volume–mystery/crime writers mainly like each other, enjoy each others company.  And that’s weird.  Because writers typically hate each other.  ‘Serious’ writers, I mean.  Oh, they may hob-nob at fashionable parties, give each other complimentary book jacket blurbs and such, but mainly they just sit around longing for any writer who ever got better critical notices or an award they didn’t get to shut up and die already.

He writes about how Saul Bellow (who I’ve yet to read a word of, shame on me), was furious when some Chicago bookseller (not even a critic!) called John Updike one of the finest writers of his generation in an interview–just one of the greatest, mind you.  Bellow called the poor guy–on the phone!–and said he was never going to speak to him again.  That’s normal.   For  ‘serious’ authors who get front page write-ups in the book review section of the Times.   Literary lions behave much the same way as actual lions, it seems.

But as Block explains, mystery writers are different.  For one thing, they pretty nearly all started out as fans of that genre.  They attend conventions devoted to that genre together.  And really, they have no reason to resent the success of other writers in their field.  Because see, when a mystery writer sells a lot of books, that’s new converts to the Church of Mystery–the reader who loves that book will look around for more, and eventually find yours.  There’s rivalry, sure, but it’s mainly friendly in nature.  Same for Science Fiction.   Same, I’m sure, for westerns, romances, horror, etc.  The larger the genre, the chummier it will be, I’d guess.

In his introduction to an edition of Chester Himes’ Harlem Detective novels, Melvin Van Peebles talks about how Himes could have been a voice of his generation, on a par with anyone in the mainstream–except there was only room for one Great Black American Author at one time, and the spot was always taken.   So at his French publisher’s sage suggestion, he went over to mystery, where there was plenty of room for everybody–more the merrier.

Now, perhaps the shared burden of oppression kept Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin from hating each other’s guts, at least some of the time, but other ‘serious’ writers, though they may have more spots to compete for, have no such bonding point–above a certain level, they are fighting for that Pulitzer, that Nobel, and that most elusive prize of all, Immortality.

Mystery writers just figure people will keep reading their stuff as long as they’re having fun with it.  And that having read one mystery author with pleasure, they’ll go looking for others.   Hammett wasn’t worried about Chandler; Chandler had only good things to say about Hammett (while still subtly suggesting he was better).  The rising tide lifts all boats, whereas there’s no logical reason, as Saul Bellow well knew, for somebody who liked a John Updike novel about that Rabbit guy to think “Hey, I should read some Saul Bellow now!”  Genre fiction is more–collegial.   I think that’s the word.  But even the most sincere collegiality has its limits.

Block’s approach to writing about fellow mystery authors is different than Westlake’s–Westlake was more interested in trends, different waves of mystery/crime fiction, as opposed to saying “This writer I like–this one–eh.”  Westlake occasionally produced a sort of grudging list of favorites, but you can tell he’s rushing through it, not relishing the exercise at all.  Block loves it.

Early in the book, we get a list of his favorite mystery authors (all deceased, so he doesn’t have to explain to living friends why they aren’t on it), and it’s not what anyone would call even-handed.   In the (alphabetical) order they are are dealt with, they are Anthony Boucher, Fredric Brown, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, Stanley Ellin, Erle Stanley Gardner, Dashiell Hammett, Chester Himes, John D. MacDonald, Ross MacDonald, Ellery Queen, Jack Ritchie, Rex Stout, Jim Thompson, and Charles Willeford–a decent list, you’d have to say.  He seems to have Boucher in there mainly out of gratitude for his services to the genre as a whole than for his specific contributions as a writer, but what of it?

His priorities are his own, all the way through–Chester Himes merits only two brief paragraphs, with no real explanation of why he’s even on the list (one reason comes to mind, but maybe it’s too obvious)–polite praise, but still something along the lines of “I liked this a lot when I read it, and haven’t read it since.”   Westlake didn’t go into a lot more detail when he mentioned Himes, but he did say he thought Himes was writing better 1960’s crime novels in the 1950’s than anybody (himself included) was writing in the 60’s, so his brevity is more eloquent by far.

Block and Westlake both love John D. MacDonald–many still do–so far I don’t, and who cares?  But given MacDonald’s huge influence, it makes sense Block goes on at such length about him, even though I think he lays it on a bit thick at points.  I guess maybe I need to try reading something besides Travis McGee, because that guy gets on my nerves something fierce.   Him and his damn houseboat, and his girlfriends who conveniently die so he can move on to the next one (Travis, you could just break up with them, you know).  But still, a uniquely important writer in the genre.   Who somehow gets a longer write-up from Block than Dashiell Hammett.

So does Ross MacDonald–he even gets more ink than Chandler, who he was directly imitating.  Block agrees with Westlake that the later Lew Archers got awfully repetitive, but there’s nothing with the deliciously acidic ring of Westlake’s remark that “He must have terrific carbon paper.”

So Block plays favorites–as do we all.  He also holds grudges (as ditto)–he loves Jim Thompson’s work, and clearly learned from it–The Girl With the Long Green Heart (1965) is a novel about grifters–much like Thompson’s The Grifters (1963), though going in a very different direction with the material–more optimistic and survival-oriented, which I think is a hallmark of both Westlake and Block.   I’d want to reread both grifter books before deciding which was better–seriously, it’s that close–but no doubt Thompson’s book is far more lauded, and got that great film adaptation, and I guess it’s not only the heart that’s green at times.

He seems peeved at Thompson for becoming so posthumously celebrated.   To which I’d respond,  “Mr Block, if the dead are insensible to the bad things people say about them, my guess is they don’t read their good reviews either–nor can they cash royalty checks where they are now–there’s a lot to be said for outliving all your contemporaries in any field of fiction–ask Stan Lee.”

There are like three pieces in the book where he talks about Thompson, spending much more time on his weaknesses than his strengths,  and concludes by saying “Just remember–it ain’t Shakespeare.”  Well no, but for a century or two after his death, neither was Shakespeare, and most of his stuff was likewise cranked out in a hurry to pay the bills, and was certainly not regarded as high art when it first appeared–nothing Thompson wrote was ever half as bad as Troilus and Cressida.  At least Thompson came up with his own stories.  Somewhere, I’m sure, Christopher Marlowe is grumbling that Shakespeare was pretty good, ‘but just remember–it ain’t Sophocles.’

Posterity does as it wills, and there’s nothing anybody can do about it.   Thompson is not nearly as overrated now as he was underrated when he was alive, and Block’s resistance to giving that particular devil his full due because the critics went mad about him once he was safely underground seems a bit petty.  It’s not that his criticisms are wrong–Thompson did often write his books too quickly, and not do enough drafts, as Westlake also remarked once or twice.   It is undeniably stupid for him to be treated as the only crime writer who wrote ‘real’ literature.  And Thompson would have heartily agreed with that, so the proper target is the critical establishment–not the author.

Block acknowledges indirectly that the flaws he’s pointing at may be part of Thompson’s appeal now–the rough unpolished feeling of the work.  But he doesn’t develop that enough–his longer piece on Thompson doesn’t come up to the level of Westlake’s now-classic essay on the novels of Peter Rabe–which probably helped revive interest in Rabe, and which Rabe himself was still alive to read.  Rabe’s main reaction to reading it was that Westlake had been so thorough in analyzing his mistakes that when he got around to saying what Rabe had gotten right, he knew it was sincere and well-earned praise.  Westlake is, in short, a better critic.   But it was never the goal of either man to be a critic, so perhaps something of a Pyrrhic victory.

Block likes Raymond Chandler a lot more than Westlake (he likes detectives a lot more than Westlake), which I imagine was an occasional source of discord between them.  Perhaps not as serious as an incident Block vaguely alludes to that involved a woman and them not speaking to each other for two years.  One would like to know more, but it seems that Mr. Westlake is still too alive for Mr. Block to write about in that way–no major revelations.  Would it be too much to hope for that Mr. Block has a volume or two of memoirs in him?

Much of the really good stuff in the book revolves around Scott Meredith.   I don’t want to give too much of it away here.  Read the book.   His essay on Meredith is just revelatory.  I was geeking out over it all the way through.   What an utterly inimitable asshole Scott Meredith was!   No wonder Evan Hunter/Ed McBain was over the moon with delight when he died.   If I’d worked for or with him, I’d probably have been dancing in the streets for a week.  Or at his funeral.  Or on his grave.  He was that awful.

And I nearly did work for him, Lord help me–back in the early 80’s, I unsuccessfully applied for one of those reader positions Block tried out for and got, so that he could read untold numbers of bad stories, then tell the writers of said stories they showed promise–while pretending to actually be Scott Meredith telling them this, and encouraging them to send in money for proper representation and guidance (basically, the only people who became famous writers because of Scott Meredith were the ones working for Scott Meredith–and they learned their lessons by observation and osmosis).  The test for applicants Block describes hadn’t changed at all by the time I got there.  And I never suspected what a scummy job I was trying to get–and nearly did–they called me back once, but somebody else must have better understood what was being asked of the applicant–I wonder how it worked out for him?

The Scott Meredith Literary Agency was, in certain respects, a mail fraud operation on a par with anything ever dreamed up by J.C. Taylor of the Dortmunder novels–and now I know where Westlake learned about that kind of thing.   God bless you for the scuttlebutt, Mr. Block.   Mr. Westlake obviously preferred to keep his reminiscences oblique and fictional, but you spun them into nonfiction gold–and acknowledged that as scurrilous as Meredith could be, he did provide a training ground for one hell of a lot of good writers, yourself included.   But he did it for himself, so no need for gratitude–merely acknowledgement.   There are useful assholes in this world, one must confess it.  Another was Raymond Rohauer, who single-handedly preserved many of the films of Buster Keaton–and then sat on them like Smaug on his golden horde, for decades.   But we have them now.  Thanks to a complete and utter asshole.

Some of the essays I had to put to one side until I’ve read the authors they’re dedicated to.   Edward Anderson, Gar Haywood, Henry Kane–I just don’t have the context.   The field is too large, and time is too short.  And much as he may urge us to read all of Erle Stanley Gardner (even though the books are, as he tells us, all basically the same), I think I’d probably have to be serving a long prison sentence to ever find the hours.  But I know, reading this, that I must somehow find the hours to further explore the work of Lawrence Block.  And I intend to do so while he’s still with us, so that I can send him a fan letter, or perhaps an appreciatory email.  However, I still have maybe two years of steady blogging about Westlake ahead of me.  Maybe I could manage some kind of minor felony conviction?   What kind of internet access do they have in minimum security prisons these days?

A lot of the pieces in this book are about Westlake–and Stark.  Block seems to have most appreciated Westlake’s comic crime novels and his Parker novels (and The Ax, but who doesn’t?).  He doesn’t have too much to say about Westlake’s straight whodunnit mysteries (that being more Mr. Block’s purview).

There is no mention at all of Tucker Coe.   But years before Matthew Scudder, there was Mitch Tobin.  And next in the queue are two of his best mysteries–two of the best mysteries anyone ever wrote.  And two of the strangest.



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22 responses to “Review: The Crime of Our Lives

  1. As always, thanks for the review. Looks like I have another book to add to my interlibrary loan queue. Most everything I’ve read by Block I’ve liked (with the exception of his post-9/11 stab at a Big Important Book, “Small Town”), and many of his books, like the 1964 standalone, “Lucky at Cards,” I’ve flat-out loved. I quite agree that Martin Blank is a ripoff of Keller, much the same way that Yojimbo’s samurai rips off the Continental Op (though this is even more egregiously blatant). I’m more of a fan of Scudder than you are, I think, and I definitely like Scudder better than Tobin, perhaps partially due to the fact that, as you note, whodunnit mysteries are more Block’s purview. But I also think Scudder is a richer, deeper character, and his alcoholism-to-AA arc is a more compelling one (to me) than Tobin’s wall of shame. (I find much to admire in Tobin as well, but I’ll have more to say about that next time.)

    • Sounds like we’ve got a good discussion in the making there–I’m definitely in Tobin’s column, though Eight Million Ways to Die is certainly a hell of a book. There was room for both detectives in New York (particularly since Westlake finished with Tobin years before Block started with Scudder). They are very different approaches to a somewhat similar problem.

      Scudder is a better series character, no question–had to be, to make it through all those novels. But Tobin is a better POV character in terms of his ability to look deeper into the world we live in, see further, learn more. He’s no wish-fulfillment fantasy–more of a nightmare-fulfillment, which might be another reason why Westlake had to let him go. I find him easier to believe in than almost any other crime/detective fiction character I can name. He is almost too real. And has no sexy hooker friends giving him freebies, I might add. 😉

      I’ve never felt like Yojimbo was a rip-off of Red Harvest (the story is almost as different as the setting), but have wondered if Kurosawa could have been serious when he said that yes, he was influenced by Hammett, but not by that particular book. He made no bones about having taken the story for High and Low from King’s Ransom, an 87th Precinct novel I’ve yet to read. I’d give a lot to know what McBain thought of that film.

      Something I should have mentioned here was a great deal of insightful writing about Evan Hunter/Ed McMain/Salvatore Lomboso–Block says that however many 87th Precinct novels he wrote, their author still thought of himself as Evan Hunter, though it was not the name he was born with. He was a very powerful influence on both Westlake and Block–a relationship that went on for many years, that I’ll have more to say about later on.

  2. Ray Garraty

    Collins’ Quarry is not the only competitor to Block’s Keller. Perry’s The Butcher’s Boy is the best, though Perry’s series lasted (so far) only three books.
    While this book’s focus is on mainly on the dead writers, there are living ones among them. Gar Haywood is one of them, great guy and a writer, had luck to review one of his books.

    The Crime of Our Lives was born right after the launch of The Getaway Car, if I remember correctly. Block talked about it in his newsletters. They are of different nature, have different aims, they complement each other. Westlake focused on his writing and his books, while Block focused on writings of others since he already wrote a few books about himself and writer’s craft. So he’d be repeating himself if he touched the subject of his fiction.

    I like Block’s early work (though some of it are of uneven quality), Keller’s books are also good.

    • I’d say Westlake focused equally on his work and on the mystery genre in general, whereas Block just hadn’t published much about his own work, since he was writing forewards to other people’s books and such, in between writing his own books–there is some autobiographical stuff in there, though–it’s not all about other people. A very prolific writer, Mr. Block, but not quite in Westlake’s league in that respect.

      Westlake just seemed to write like there was an itch he had to keep scratching, and fiction writing alone wouldn’t stop the itch. He may have thought otherwise, but there was a teacher in him, a lecturer, a pedant–he liked to share what he’d learned with others, and when he did it, he put a lot of effort into it, tried to make it every bit as idiosyncratic and sui generis as the best of his fiction. Block likes to share as well, but more in a chatty way–like telling stories about old friends (and enemies), from a bar stool. Both approaches have their merits.

      You can sense the rivalry between them, when he talks about Westlake, much more than you can sense it when Westlake writes about Block (though he was damned impressed with Block). Block was five years younger (so as Westlake would see it, still a child until the tail-end of the 1960’s), hit his stride as a writer a bit later, and like all good friendships, there are as many differences as there are similarities. They see the world in ways that are subtly dissimilar.

      Both are concerned with identity in their work, but Westlake is much more tightly focused on it–Block can give it a rest some of the time, just focus on pure storytelling, which many may prefer, but from my perspective that consistent theme running like a silver thread through Westlake’s work gives me more of a hook to hang my reviews on.

      Westlake wasn’t quite old enough to be Block’s mentor, or young enough to be his contemporary. They both really got started as novelists around the same time, but Westlake had been writing seriously for a longer time. Still, kindred spirits. And with similar tastes in women, it seems–hence Block’s atypically vague allusion to that two year breach in their friendship.

      And again, I think the reason he can’t talk about that is that Westlake isn’t really dead for him yet. I found it really poignant, his piece on Memory–and his insistence that his friend could have been one of those ‘serious’ writers, if things had gone a bit different. Block thinks Westlake could have done anything as a writer. But maybe the reason he didn’t go that way was that he liked having writers for friends. And particularly this one.

      • Ray Garraty

        Would you agree that their another friend, Ed McBain, was more popular and famous and better known than both of them?
        Block is more chatty, sure, he also, I believe, can make a better joke than Westlake. I’d seen Block on Conan once and then at another late show, I forgot the host, and Larry was actually funnier than the latter host and as fun as Conan was.

        • Evan Hunter (which is how Block refers to him, and how he mainly referred to himself) has been an enormous influence on crime fiction–not just of the print variety–probably no TV police procedural on the air hasn’t been impacted by the 87th Precinct novels (I’m not sure I want to thank him for that, honestly). I’d agree he was a bigger deal than Westlake, commercially speaking–but things can change over time–I think Westlake’s work may outlive Hunter’s. It’s more individualistic, less dependent on formula, less geared towards the conventions of the world he was writing it in. It’s going to be less subject to the vagaries of time.

          But again, this is genre–there’s room for everybody. One reputation doesn’t have to outshine all the others. That isn’t how it works. Maybe Block is so unfair to Thompson because he feels like he’s been given this unmerited promotion, by virtue of a more interesting bio, and arbitrary changes in fashion. He’s been posthumously raised above the general throng, and thus must be brought back down again.

          And Block is also a bit rough on Hunter/McBain–telling some stories of marital infidelity and general lechery, that are salaciously enjoyable, and perhaps illuminating in some way, and certainly not harmful to his literary reputation. But again, maybe just seeking to humanize an icon. Remind us that no matter how much we admire this or that writer, all feet are clay.

          Block may be funnier in person than Westlake–I’m not in any position to opine–but if you’re trying to argue he was funnier as a writer, I think you’ll have to resign yourself to permanent minority status, man. 😉

          • Ray Garraty

            I don’t think that (and I don’t know how funny Westlake was in person). Our discussion here doesn’t have a goal to downgrade writers, who was better or worse, but to place them in historical context.
            Probably, the closer a friend the more protective you get while talking about him. That’s natural, for any moral man. As you said, Block thinks that Westlake is still among the living.

            • I think the general consensus is that Westlake was very funny in person, but I don’t know how he’d have done on Conan. That might not have been his ideal venue. 😉

  3. Another hitman as series character is Vlad Taltos. And Steven Brust is possibly as funny as Westlake was. The prologue to the last Vlad novel, for instance, was both an excellent description of Vlad’s situation after having been on the run from the Mob for ten years, and also a perfect paraphrase of the introduction to each episode of Burn Notice. (It ends “Bottom line — As long as you’re wanted, you’re not going anywhere.”)

    • Now, if we’re going to count sword&sorcery novels set on other planets, we’re really opening things up quite a bit. I was thinking more along the lines of a series character who lives in the present day, and kills people for money–a contract killer. I wouldn’t count Lone Wolf and Cub either. It’s too zen. I mean, literally. 😉

      • Vlad is a contract killer, that is, he does kill people for money. Well, more or less people 🙂

        • If the character lives mid-to-late 20th or early 21st century, on earth, appears in stories written for the crime fiction audience, wears ordinary clothing, uses guns and sometimes less noisy tools like knives or improvised garrotes, has some kind of booking agent who potential clients can hire him through, and will kill anyone for money, then that is a relevant comparison for the purposes at hand.

          Try getting out of that one.


          • Ray Garraty

            My top three series hitmen:
            The Butcher’s Boy

            Barry Eisler also write good hitman stuff with a CIA touch.

            • I prefer Block’s take, because he doesn’t take it seriously–he uses it as a way to comment on human nature. He probably was influenced by Quarry–it’s the same basic set-up. But Block is more or less using that set-up as an occasion for satire.

              Collins is more farcical in his approach–actually, based on what little Quarry I’ve read, it’s almost a kind of dark picaresque. Quarry has almost no capacity for self-reflection, not because he’s a predator like Parker, but rather because he’s just shut down his ability to process higher emotions. Or maybe there wasn’t that much there to begin with. He’s sort of a blank. He doesn’t seem to have any opinions about anything. He just kills people for money (usually bad people) and screws hot chicks. There’s an audience for that. There always will be.

              Keller has very deep feelings about things, but he’s very alienated and abtracted from the world around him. He lets people in now and again, but it never works out. Some of the people he kills don’t deserve to die, and he may even like them, but he’s existentially compelled to do the job he was paid for. It’s the emotional side of the character, his attitude, that they ‘borrowed’ for the film Grosse Pointe Blank. That may be why Block couldn’t really say anything about it. He’d borrowed earlier ideas to create Keller–it was a variation on a theme, not a truly original idea (to the extent those can be said to exist in the first place).

              Block says in one of the essays in this book that he doesn’t really believe story and character ideas are what fiction writing is about–all that matters is what you do with him. I think he’s maybe overstating his point–there are truly original ideas, and they do matter, but they come along rarely, and the best writers don’t always have the best original ideas. There are many distinct sub-sets within the overall skill-set of telling a story. No one excels equally at all of them. And everybody borrows, but they don’t all do it the same way. There is a point beyond which it’s just stealing.

              As Ernest Hemingway said, “You can steal from anybody you’re better than.” Meaning, I think, that if you can take somebody’s idea and improve on it in some way, you’re not really stealing–any more than a craftsman who makes a better chair than the craftsman he apprenticed with. But if you’re stealing just because you have nothing of your own to contribute but want to appear as if you do, then you’re lowering the art, not elevating it. And there’s a lot of very successful writers out there who have done that. More of them in film and television these days, because that’s where the money and power is. And it’s so much easier to conceal your thefts that way.

              Evan Hunter absolutely did believe he’d been robbed by television–that his idea of making an entire police precinct the protagonist of a series of stories was stolen by TV writers like Steven Bochco, who never credited him, and who were (briefly) lauded as geniuses. But it’s not necessarily that clear. And the same idea can occur independently to different people. And we’re way off topic here, but that’s nothing new for this blog. 😉

              • Ray Garraty

                We stay on topic as long as we discuss the books by the writer which book you just reviewed, isn’t it right?
                I see almost nothing in common between Quarry and Keller. One is sort of violent and nasty war vet who kills mercelessly (I read only the first book), and the other one is a tired old man, enjoying his almost suburban life. Block’s take is more reflective and reflexive. The idea is not really fresh, some pieces of it were in the air and in the works of others, but it was Block who first pierced them together. He was first who applied an idea of hitman who can live normal, law abiding life doing hits from time to time. Block showed that it is possible to portrait a normal man as a sympathetic hitman who works individually, not as a hired gun for the mob or CIA.

  4. As characters, Quarry and Keller are polar opposites. I think I made that clear. But the basic set-up is very similar. There’s an Old Man who runs the business–he accepts the contracts, and the hitter–Quarry or Keller–does the job, improvising his way through what is always a more complicated job than it was supposed to be, often getting involved in some way with people who are somehow connected with the victim. Quarry works for a much larger business, with a number of different hitters in it. Keller seems to be the only contractor working for his outfit.

    Block added a nice twist–there’s a female office support person working for the Old Man, who is a bit sweet on Keller–the Gal Friday so beloved of the P.I. subgenre. This is another thing they borrowed for Grosse Pointe Blank. We never really meet Keller’s boss–whereas in the Quarry books, he’s a fairly important character.

    They were all responding to the Murder Inc. story that blew wide open in the early 40’s (made Thomas Dewey’s career, before his failed Presidential campaign finished it). Many crime writers, such as Peter Rabe (Anatomy of a Killer), had done one-shot stories and novels featuring hit-men. And as I mentioned many reviews back, there was the daddy of ’em all–Graham Greene’s A Gun For Sale.

    The hit-man was a common figure in crime fiction, and there had been some movies featuring them as sympathetic characters (like 1969’s Hard Contract, starring James Coburn and Sterling Hayden as two different generations of assassins working for the government) but I don’t think anybody had tried to do a whole series based around a guy who just kills for money, and mainly works for criminals–the closest equivalent before that would have been Mack Bolan (The Executioner), who is a hit-man working for himself, whose primary target is criminals, and of course Remo Williams (The Destroyer), who is a hit-man working for a secret government agency, and obviously never kills anybody who doesn’t deserve it.

    Collins borrowed from all of these to create Quarry, a character who pretends to no agenda other than getting paid and getting laid, but so far as I know, he is still primarily killing people who need killing. Keller, the most sympathetic and three-dimensional of any of these, is also, strangely, the most cold-blooded when it comes to business. Some of his victims are people he likes, who don’t really deserve their fates, but a job is a job. If it isn’t him, it’ll be someone else.

    I’ve read more Keller than Quarry, so I can’t really get any deeper into it than that. I don’t see how Block hadn’t read some Quarry books–he knows Collins–so I assume there’s some influence, but in the sense of “Okay, Max went this way with it, what can I do that’s different?”

  5. Craig Childs

    If you liked Girl With the Long Green Heart, I also urge you to try Grifter’s Game. One of Block’s best non-series novels.

  6. Dan Cluley

    The only other Hitman series I’ve run across are the Peter Macklin books by Loren Estleman. There are 3 from the mid ’80s & a couple more from the early 2000s. I liked them more than the Quarry books, but maybe not as much as Keller.

    • Hitters are everywhere in crime fiction–and other genres–but rarely do they get their own series. But now, of course, there’s an HBO series about a hitman who wants to be an actor. And it may be all right, but I just can’t be bothered.

      (Be funny if he had an acting coach named Grofield.)

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