Even the wicked

When I was 9 or 10 I started raiding my father's bookshelf. He was a big reader, finishing several books a week. He read a little history. He read a few biographies. But mostly what he read was detective novels. He didn’t discriminate: one day he’d finish a gritty story about tracking down a serial killer. The next day he’d start a book about a woman who solves murders through clues in crossword puzzles (there is a whole series of these).

Some of the first books-for-grownups that I read were by Lawrence Block. Block is best known for his Matthew Scudder books, a dark series about an ex-policeman grappling with alcoholism after accidentally killing a child. But he’s also written a series of books about a hit man in therapy (this was pre-Sopranos) and a burglar who is trying to go straight. His most recent book (as of 2020) is about a man who got away with a heinous crime in his youth, and is watching with alarm as DNA databases lead to cold cases being solved.

In short, he generally writes about scoundrels. And he generally makes you like them.

As a kid I didn’t know it, but several of the burglar books are tributes to (or parodies of) other authors. The Burglar In The Library is a sort of Agatha Christie pastiche. The Burglar Who Thought He Was Bogart mashes up elements of Dashiel Hammett and Rex Stout stories. The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams cracks jokes about Sue Grafton, making up titles for her alphabet mystery series (A is for Alibi, etc.) like H is for Preparation and K is for Rations. When I later read Christie, Hammett, and the rest, my mind boggled at how much was already familiar.

Block’s genre novels aren’t highbrow literary fiction. But they’re superbly written, and oddly educational. From the Bernie Rhodenbarr / burglar series I learned about Baruch Spinoza, Rudyard Kipling, Piet Mondrian, and the basics of lock picking. From the Hit Man / Keller series I learned enough about stamp collecting to be able to hold a conversation with a philatelist. Everything I know about geopolitics in the Balkans comes from the Thief Who Couldn’t Sleep / Even Tanner series.

As much as I like other writers, Block has always been my favorite. When I went off to school, the one book I brought with me was his doorstop of a collection of short stories (Enough Rope). When I purged my bookshelf before my last move, I re-purchased his back catalog in e-book form. When he’s got something new out, or reissues something old, I make sure to read it.

Why bring him up now? For one, I just read his latest novella and it’s fresh in my mind. For two, I wonder how many people have both (a) wanted to cancel somebody for having some now-regrettable Tweets; and (b) sympathized with a fictional criminal, murderer, or thief. Seriously, go read Hit Man (as I did at 13) and try not to root for the contract killer to get away with murder.

If the overlap is large, then this suggests a book market opportunity: a series about people who commit vile thought crimes and get away with them.

If the overlap is small, great! We’ll solve the culture war by shipping everybody Lawrence Block books. I’m sure his publishers will be delighted. I have a few suggestions for which ones to use:

  • Hit Man (1998)

  • A Long Line of Dead Men (1994)

  • The Thief Who Couldn't Sleep (1966)

  • The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams (1994)

  • The Girl with the Long Green Heart (1965)