About Lawrence Block
Lawrence Block has been writing award-winning mystery and suspense fiction for half a century. His most recent novels are A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF, featuring Matthew Scudder, and GETTING OFF, starring a very naughty young woman. Several of his books have been filmed, although not terribly well. He’s well known for his books for writers, including the classic TELLING LIES FOR FUN & PROFIT, and THE LIAR’S BIBLE. In addition to prose works, he has written episodic television (TILT!) and the Wong Kar-wai film, MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS. He is a modest and humble fellow, although you would never guess as much from this biographical note.
And he’s not hard to contact:
Q: WHAT DOES LB LIKE TO READ?
I don’t know why anyone would care, but I get that question often enough to gather that you do. While I’ll probably continue to mumble something evasive in public, we’re private here, right? I mean, it’s the Internet, for heaven’s sake. Our privacy is guaranteed.
So let’s go. I’ll stick largely to dead authors, in order to avoid offending the unmentioned living. What follows is in no particular order. I’ve supplied links for those books that are in print, but the others shouldn’t be too hard for you to track down. I know my readers, and y’all are a resourceful lot.
When I add to this section, I’ll put the latest posts at the top, so return visitors won’t have to wade through what they’ve already read. And I’ll date the posts, which I didn’t have the sense to do from the beginning. So:
May 4, 2012
Donald E. Westlake’s new/old novel
Here’s a review I wrote last night for a new release by a cherished friend:
First, full disclosure: Donald E. Westlake was one of my closest friends for over fifty years. Shortly after his death, I had the good fortune to play a role in Hard Case Crime’s publication of Memory, a dark existential novel he wrote in the early 60s and shelved when his agent couldn’t sell it. I read Memory in manuscript, days after he finished it, and I thought it was brilliant. My opinion hasn’t changed.
Twenty years later, Don wrote The Comedy is Finished; he shelved this one when a Scorsese film came out with a theme that was too close to his. (I remember he acknowledged other problems as well. He was renowned as the ranking master of comic suspense, and he’d written a caper novel in which a Bob Hope-type comedian is kidnapped, so how can a reader expect anything but froth and laughs? But the book, while hardly humorless, is overall about as funny as a heart attack. So how do you promote something like that?)
As I said, I read Memory back in the day. I didn’t get to read The Comedy is Finished until Charles Ardai (more full disclosure: another friend, and a publisher of mine) rescued it from oblivion. And I’m hugely grateful for the chance to read it now. It’s a wonderful look at a largely forgotten chapter in American history, contemporary when it was written, a perfect period piece now. I’m biased, we know that, but I enjoyed and admired the book hugely, and I’m pleased to commend it to your attention.
October 7, 2011
I’ve been neglecting this page lately. Other projects have been keeping me busy, and there’s also the fact that I haven’t been reading much lately. But I had dinner the other night with Dan Wakefield, whom I think of as an old friend I was meeting for the first time. We’ve had no end of friends in common, both lived in the Village in the 50s, are familiar with and fond of each other’s work, but had no contact until Facebook brought us together. A few weeks ago I reread a favorite book, Starting Over, and found I liked it every bit as much as I did in 1974. And he came town, and we had dinner, and discovered a mutual delight in the work of W. Somerset Maugham.
Somerset Maugham, Willie to his friends, was hugely successful during his long lifetime (1874-1965) and produced a great number of short stories, novels, and plays. His semi-autobiographical novel, Of Human Bondage, is often considered his most important work, but when I tried to reread it a few years ago I found it slow going. His huge body of work includes some lesser efforts, but everything he wrote was so accessible and well-crafted that one can’t go too far wrong. Dan and I shared our enthusiasm for The Razor’s Edge (about a spiritual quest) and The Moon and Sixpence (inspired by Gauguin). I spoke admiringly of Cakes and Ale (which is sort of about Hugh Walpole) and The Narrow Corner (which made me sorry I never smoked opium). I could have mentioned Ashenden, too, a classic espionage story based on Maugham’s own career as a British agent during the First World War.
Dan had good things to say about The Painted Veil, one I’d somehow missed. It’s on my Kindle now.
July 31, 2011
In 1957-8 I was working at a literary agency and writing short stories for magazines like Manhunt and Trapped and Guilty. I was reading widely in the field, for pleasure as well as education, and the New York Mercantile Library was a great source of out-of-print crime fiction; they never threw anything out, so for pennies a day I could read my way through the complete works of some wonderful writers, not least of whom was Fredric Brown.
I’d discovered Brown my freshman year in college, when my roommate Steve Schwerner and I ate up The Screaming Mimi and The Wench is Dead. I wasn’t calling it research then. I just loved the way the guy wrote, and now I had good reason to read everything the man had written.
So one night I came home from the office via the Merc. I remember that it was a Friday, and I’d stopped on my way home to pick up a bottle of Jim Beam, thinking it would be pleasant to have a drink or two while I read Murder Can Be Fun. I opened the book and the bottle, and every time Brown’s protagonist had a drink, I had one myself. Now you could do this with Agatha Christie or Ellery Queen and you’d be fine, but with Fred Brown it was suicidal. The next thing I knew it was morning, and I was passed out on the floor, and the bottle was empty, and the book barely half-finished.
Fredric Brown started out as a printer and had a considerable apprenticeship in the pulps before his first novel, The Fabulous Clipjoint, made its debut by winning an Edgar. (The book has a carnival background, and its uncle-and-nephew team of Ed and Am Hunter reappear to good effect in several later novels.) He was every bit asadept at science-fiction, and Martians Go Home and What Mad Universe are classics. He wrote an abundance of short stories in both genres, and a remarkable proportion of these are brilliant, and frequently grace anthologies. Every story he told was recounted in his very distinctive and always engaging voice. You pick up the book and read the first paragraph and relax, knowing you’re in good hands.
I’d recommend all of the books I’ve mentioned, and don’t want to forget Night of the Jabberwock, a special treat for Lewis Carroll enthusiasts.
I’d have liked to meet Fredric Brown, and might have; he went on living and writing novels until 1972. It never occurred to me to write him a letter, and then the day came when it was too late.
July 29, 2011
Evan was a role model for me years before I ever heard the term. That he eventually became a good friend was a source of enormous satisfaction to me. Sometimes the intimacy of friendship can keep the fiction from working, but that certainly didn’t happen here. I have never stopped being his fan.
I wrote a pair of columns for Mystery Scene about my memories of Evan, so I’ll confine myself here to his work. He’s probably best known for his work as Ed McBain, esp. the 87th Precinct novels; over half a century and no end of books, the quality never slipped and you never felt he was phoning it in. If anything, I’d argue that the books got better as he went along, becoming longer, richer, and more layered.
The books he wrote as Evan Hunter are not generic crime novels, although many have crime as an element. Evan’s own favorite was Buddwing; I read it when it came out and didn’t care for it. (I think I probably ought to have another look at it.) Last Summer is a wicked little gem of a novel, with not a superfluous word in it; there’s a sequel, Come Winter, and that’s good as well. Streets of Gold, narrated by a blind jazz pianist from East Harlem, is a great picture of the music world and of growing up Italian. Candyland, a tour de force in which Evan Hunter and Ed McBain share a byline, makes a gripping and haunting story out of sexual addiction.
Evan’s final illness was nasty, a siege of laryngeal cancer that took his voice before it took his life. He wrote up until the very end. His memoir of his illness, Let’s Talk—published in the UK but not here, and don’t ask me why—is his way of making lemonade out of that particular sour citrus. And months before his death he completed Alice in Jeopardy, only to begin work on Becca in Jeopardy; it was his intention to work his way clear through the alphabet. The man was a writer with every atom of his being, and you’re in good hands whatever book of his you pick.
If I have a favorite writer, he’s it. I’ve re-read virtually everything of O’Hara’s, some books many times, and have never lost the feeling that he captures American lives better than anyone else. It’s fashionable to praise his short stories over his novels, fashionable too to claim it was all downhill after his first novel, Appointment in Samarra. Well, that’s crap. The short fiction is wonderful, and Samarra’s a brilliant debut, but long novels like Ten North Frederick and From the Terrace set a bar so high I don’t expect anyone to clear it. And I can’t fail to mention the set of three perfect short novels, Sermons and Soda Water. Just about everything’s out of print, but not hard to find in the after-market.
Ross was a good friend, and I miss him. I wrote about him in a piece I did for Mystery Scene, and supplied an introduction for a reissue of http://tinyurl.com/5rbvw8n, so let me only that I find his work—under his own name and as Oliver Bleeck—wonderfully entertaining and endlessly re-readable. Everything he wrote is a favorite, but I’ll mention a few: The Fools in Town are on Our Side, The Cold War Swap, The Fourth Durango, Chinaman’s Chance, The Procane Chronicle. . .oh, this is silly. They’re all terrific. The man never wrote a bad book, or a lifeless page.
JEFF AND MICHAEL SHAARA
Well, I’ve just broken my own word, because I’m happy to say that Jeff Shaara is very much alive. But how to mention The Killer Angels, his father’s wonderful novel of Gettysburg, without citing the son who bookended that work with Gods and Generals and The Last Full Measure? Jeff was a coin dealer in Florida when someone suggested he augment his father’s work with a prequel and a sequel, and he took to it as if born to do just that. You’d swear he was channeling Michael. He’s gone on to write other books about other American wars, and they’re all good, but read these three books first.
You’d think from this list that I was a big fan of historical novels, but mostly I’m not. They have to be terrific. Thomas Flanagan wrote three, all set in Ireland, and they’re better than terrific; they’re Literature. The Year of the French is first, and the most accessible; The Tenants of Time and The End of the Hunt are a little more demanding, but worth the effort. One wishes he could have written more.
DONALD E. WESTLAKE
It can’t be much of a secret that he and I were best friends for many years. I’ve written extensively about Don, and supplied introductions for three of his Richard Stark novels, http://tinyurl.com/6amscsv, Comeback and Backflash. Of course I recommend those—and Dancing Aztecs, and http://tinyurl.com/6fert59, and The Road to Ruin, and the Tucker Coe books, and everything else the man ever wrote. (And he wrote a lot…)
A brilliant writer who wrote too little and died too young. Much of his work is science fiction (Mockingbird, The Man Who Fell to Earth) but I’m fondest of his contemporary novels. The Queen’s Gambit is a personal favorite, and I’m about due to re-read it again. Ditto The Hustler and it’s under-appreciated sequel, The Color of Money. (The Paul Newman film version of the latter departed entirely from the book on page one; I can understand the filmmaker’s decision, but I don’t have to agree with it.)
Well, that’s a start. More to come. . .
Jalfieri’s comment tilted me toward baseball stories. I was in the process of ePubbing “Almost Perfect” and had made these observations in the online introduction to the story: “My own favorite baseball stories are all novels. Bernard Malamud’s The Natural is a critical favorite, and justly so, but there are four other books I like even better. Three are by Mark Harris—The Southpaw and its two sequels, Bang the Drum Slowly and A Ticket For a Seamstitch. (Harris wrote a fourth novel about the same character toward the end of his life, and it can be charitably described as disappointing.) And Charles Einstein’s The Only Game in Town is a book I’ve reread several times, with undiminishing enjoyment.”
I unaccountably failed to mention W. P Kinsella’s magical Shoeless Joe, which I enjoyed immensely as a book and again as the film, Field of Dreams. And I’ve ordered the Shaara book on Jalfieri’s recommendation. More to come…