Let’s start with the obvious: Lawrence Block is the greatest living mystery writer in America today. Furthermore, he is our greatest writer of hard-boiled noir fiction. Thus a new work from him is a major literary event for mystery lovers. HIT ME does not disappoint. For his legion of fans, Block is working at the height of his powers.
HIT ME is the fifth book in the series starring the aptly named killer for hire, John Keller. It includes five Keller stories, with one --- “Keller in Dallas” --- having been published before online. This short episodic format is perfect for Keller since he first appeared as a short story in Playboy in 1989, which was nominated for an Edgar Award. A later Keller story, “Keller’s Therapy,” also appeared in Playboy and did win an Edgar.
Block had already secured his legacy in the genre before Keller came along with his dark series on alcoholic PI Matt Scudder and the lighthearted mysteries featuring burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr. But Keller was something else completely. The greatness of this hit man was that Block resisted just about all the stereotypes of the hit man in noir history. This is a regular guy, not some mafia psychopath or greedy murderer. He is not a man from Murder Incorporated but an ordinary guy you might talk to about stamps. Indeed, Keller’s love of stamp collecting features prominently throughout HIT ME. And there is also a beautiful, limited edition Philatelic First Edition of the book signed by Block for sale on eBay and through the author’s “LB’s Blog.”
"The stories in HIT ME hold together perfectly, and the conversations Keller has with Dot are a delight to read. But then you discover that Block has not just written an entertaining book but also has managed to say something very serious about the age in which we live.... HIT ME is true noir for our times. Do not miss this great read."
In Keller, Block created the urban existential anti-hero, the solitary man. But it looked like the series might be done in 2008 with HIT AND RUN when somebody tried to do an Oswald on Keller and set him up for a hit on a presidential candidate. Keller was on the run, unable to use his name or return home to New York. Even his closest ally, friend and broker Dot, barely escaped with her life and retired to Arizona. Fate intervened for Keller, though, when he ended up in New Orleans and was saved by a woman he rescued from a violent criminal. She eventually became his wife, and they had a child. Keller, now called Nicholas Edwards, went into the straight business of construction and restoring old homes.
But then came the crash and the home restoration business tanked. As many of us learned in recent years, it is good to have something to fall back on. So when Dot calls with a job not far from a stamp sale in Dallas, Keller sees a way to make a few bucks to buy the stamps he wants. But he is not greedy; he know exactly what he is doing. Block writes:“He might cross the street against the light, and he and Danny managed to keep their cash receipts a secret from the tax man, but all in all he was a law abiding individual, a reasonably solid citizen…But all along he had this dark side, this other life, and he left that part of himself behind when he settled in New Orleans.”
Or did he? And Block is so good that he gets you rooting for this monster. But that’s the thing: Keller is not a monster; he is an ordinary guy capable of doing monstrous things for a living. And we readers don’t mind. After all, murder can be seductive as he tells his wife: “Plus it is easy to get involved. It’s problem solving, and you get caught up in it, and there is a good feeling when it works out. Well, there can be a bad feeling, too, but you push that part aside.”
Block’s writing style is so effortless and easy that you can’t help but gladly go along on Keller’s missions. Until there comes a moment when you suddenly realize with a chill what is about to happen next. Then you know what real noir is and how great Block is at bringing us willingly into the noir universe where nothing, even the mild-mannered man of a certain age bidding against you in a friendly stamp auction, is what it seems. And to be able to achieve this as well as Block does is the mark of a truly great writer, such as the early noir masters like James M. Cain, Jim Thompson and Ross Macdonald. Block is every bit their equal.
The stories in HIT ME hold together perfectly, and the conversations Keller has with Dot are a delight to read. But then you discover that Block has not just written an entertaining book but also has managed to say something very serious about the age in which we live. Keller might not be a solitary man any longer. But he is still the existential anti-hero of the age of hedge fund capitalism. Keller has often reminded us that the people he is sent to terminate are picked out for a reason. And the market being such, if he does not do it, the client will probably find somebody else willing to do it for a price.
Keller is a guy who does his job well, not out of love for what he does, but because it is what he does well; he gets paid handsomely for it. To use the hedge fund analogy, if the factory ends up in China or Vietnam and its current workers on the street, well, that’s life; the workers would be downsized no matter who fired them. And that might be the most frightening noir feature of the Keller stories. He has written a book not just about a hit man but also about the America in which we live.
Yet Block has created a character with both a heart and conscience, so one is left wondering at the end if the final Keller hit will be, metaphorically, on himself and if there are some lines that can never be crossed. But then again, there is always another expensive stamp out there for a “general worldwide collector” such as Keller to add to his collection. And the downsizing of workers or hits will go on no matter what Keller ultimately does. HIT ME is true noir for our times. Do not miss this great read.
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on February 15, 2013