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.