It is a truism of noir fiction and movies that the bad guys are
often more fun than the good. Think of Jimmy Cagney playing Cody
Jarrett in White Heat.
This certainly holds true for John Keller. Keller is the type of
reserved, good-natured, nondescript fellow you might find yourself
sitting next to during a business flight to Detroit. He'll tell you
about his stamp collection, but will not talk much about his
business because his business is murdering people for a fee.
But that doesn't mean you wouldn't want to spend some time with
HIT PARADE is a wonderful book. Lawrence Block is one of America's
greatest mystery writers, winner of the Grand Master Award from the
Mystery Writers of America. His private eye novels featuring
alcoholic ex-cop Matt Scudder are classics that rank right up there
with the work of Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald. Keller began
as a short story written for Playboy. Block told me in 2003
that he never expected to write another word about Keller; his
story seemed complete.
But then a few years went by and he wrote another Keller short
story and then many more. HIT MAN collected those stories in 1998,
followed by the Keller novel HIT LIST in 2000. This book, HIT
PARADE, collects several previously published short stories now
linked together to form a Keller novel.
What makes HIT PARADE so much fun is that you can't help but enjoy
spending time with Keller, despite his line of work. These are not
just wonderfully written crime stories; they are also a fascinating
psychological profile of what novelist Jim Thompson once titled
"the killer inside me." Keller is an intelligent, ordinary guy who
just happens to be capable of extraordinary, often instantaneous,
But he is not some sort of Tony Soprano wannabe wiseguy. "His edge
professionally lay in his professionalism," Block tells us. We come
to look forward to the calls from his partner in crime, Dot, the
nice lady who invites Keller to come visit her in her suburban home
for iced tea in the kitchen. Dot took over the business from the
old man who hired Keller years ago. She is the one you call if you
want somebody --- a business partner, baseball player, romantic
rival, your wife or even an aggressive dog --- hit.
But it is all very corporate, very antiseptic. There is talk of
"clients" and getting them through "brokers" and "booking agents."
Keller is really just part of the corporate downsizing culture.
When a big company wants to fire their employees, they bring in an
"outplacement" firm to do the dirty work. The guy doing the firing
doesn't necessarily enjoy it. But it's his job. It has to be done.
The individual's needs must yield to the bottom line needs of the
corporation. So too in modern crime.
All great hard-boiled fiction, such as practiced by Dashiell
Hammett and Thompson, is subversive at its core. It deals with
horrible things: murder, the disruption of the natural order. And
Block does the same with his bad man, even while telling enjoyable
stories with plenty of plot twists; oftentimes jobs are not what
they first seem, and sometimes the client will be amazed at what
emerges from the Pandora's box they stupidly paid to have
Keller doesn't get any personal or sexual thrill from killing. It's
his job. He is careful, though, and tries not to kill innocent
bystanders. But is anybody really innocent, he wonders at one
point. As for bystanders, sometimes they cannot be avoided. Keller
doesn't need to remind us, but in wars, such as the ones we are now
engaged in, the military has a name for bystander deaths:
collateral damage. So too in crime.
Keller is the existentialist hit man. While he does not have moral
problems with killing, he can't help but wonder if he is a
sociopath. But how could he be? For as a child he did not set
fires, or torture animals or wet his bed. And while he does not get
physically sick when he completes a job, he throws up for days
And therein lies the rub. "He had, after all, lived alone for years
and it worked for him. Most of the time, anyway," Block tells us.
Keller is also the solitary man, so alienated from his work that he
takes refuge in his expensive hobby: collecting stamps. He tells
Dot he can't do this work anymore and starts a new retirement fund,
which then he promptly spends on stamps. And the hits keep coming.
What Keller really needs is to unburden himself and open up to
somebody, which he can only do to a certain point with Dot.
But how can a hit man find the human touch? In one story, while
driving from New York to a job in Arizona, Keller notices a kid
hitchhiking. Block writes:
"Since he was running on cruise control, his foot didn't even move,
and the hitchhiker slipped out of sight in the rearview mirror,
unaware what a narrow escape he'd just had...Keller could picture
the kid, listening wide-eyed to everything Keller had to tell him.
He pictured himself, his soul unburdened, grateful to the youth for
listening, but compelled by circumstance to cover his tracks. He
imagined the car gliding to a stop, imagined the brief struggle,
imagined the body left in a roadside ditch, the Camry heading west
at a thoughtful three miles an hour over the speed limit."
Block is a brilliant writer because he makes the bad guy good. We
enjoy watching Keller elaborately stalk his prey. Ultimately, we
are on Keller's side and God forbid he should ever get caught or
retire. Block takes us into a world not of black and white or good
and evil, but a world of depressing corporate gray. In other words,
the modern world. And then, when we least expect it, he does what
he did in the paragraph quoted above: he lifts the mask and we see
the horror lurking just beneath the surface.
All great mysteries are subversive. They entertain while holding up
a mirror to the society they portray. Read everything by Lawrence
Block. Read HIT PARADE and enjoy, and be prepared to shiver a bit
despite the summer heat.
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on January 22, 2011