Tag Archives: Bernie Rhodenbarr

Book clubbing with Larry Block

So let’s start out right away with saying I’m a giant Lawrence Block fan.  I even said so in the blog post titled Lawrence Block, I’m your super-fan.  I’ve read pretty much everything he’s written, including several “how-to” writing books.

I’m “friends” with the author on Facebook, in that I-wouldn’t-recognize-you-if you-slapped-me-but-you-buy-my-books-way that makes me feel like I have an occasional brush with greatness and probably doesn’t do anything for Mr. Block at all.

Anyway, Larry was kind enough to post on FB that he was going to be speaking to a mystery readers book club at the Salamagundi Club in New York City on the one night that Broadway-vacationer me did not have show tickets.  It was a free event and located convenient to the 14th Street/Union Square subway stop.  Sold.

It was an interesting event.  There were about 30 pleasant, well-read people there, including me, and I believe I was by far the youngest.  The group had selected Block’s The Burglar in the Library (the 8th Bernie Rhodenbarr book) for reading, and questions centered on the book itself, the characters, the writing process, movies of books, and then of course, the publishing world, the Internet and e-books.  I was taking notes on my iPad at the time, and actually owned three books that were available in hard copy for sale at the event – right there, bought from Amazon, and living an electronic life of bits and bytes.  People weren’t eyeing me nervously, but there certainly was a clear lack of interest in this topic.

So here are some things I learned tonight about Lawrence Block:

He wears hearing aids and is gracious about asking you to speak up.  The books he writes are so witty and physical, and Matthew Scudder in particular is so vital, although aging, that it was a bit of a shock to realize that Larry Block is older than my dad.  So I guess my little crush has been inappropriate all along.  Please don’t tell me how old Calvin Trillin is.  I don’t want to know.

There have been three movies based on Larry’s books.  When forced to name one, he points out Burglar, which starred Whoopi Goldberg as Bernice Rhodenbarr, and is not surprisingly, not stellar. You can read more about other Lawrence Block books in development here.  His website mentions A Walk Among the Tombstones in a 2003 development deal, but as recently as 2011, it was on the docket from a production company that included Danny DeVito.  I’d buy a ticket.

He doesn’t show a book in progress to anyone until it’s done, having realized that he only wants to get others’ opinions in order to reinforce his own thought that he should abandon a particular project.  So, no advice, no abandonment.

Writing short stories are as close as you can get to instant gratification, he says.  Novels take longer.  But whatever he’s writing is his favorite, when it’s going well.

He told a funny story about Robert B. Parker (Spenser series) – when asked whether he gets the plot or the characters first, Parker said, “Neither.  The contract comes first.”  Ha!

I asked him what he is working on now – the answer, “Between books right now, but the next one out is Hit Me.”  Hit Me features Keller, Block’s hit man protagonist, in February 2013.

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Lawrence Block, I’m your super-fan

Let’s be clear up front:  If you’ve never read a single word that Lawrence Block ever wrote, you will still love his new Matthew Scudder,  A Drop of the Hard Stuff. Scudder is an engaging voice.  He’s tough – been around the block a time or two or ten.  Manly – a go-to guy for any friend (and lots of strangers) with a problem, and for certain women who are looking for a capable and friendly roll in the sheets.  And he’s damaged – an alcoholic who struggles, with an ex-wife, kids he doesn’t see much, and bad memories.  But he’s a good man and with each book, the reader can see how he grows and matures.  So if you haven’t read Lawrence Block yet – or if you have only dipped into his funny Bernie Rhodenbarr series – go ahead, start with this one.

Still… I’m a giant Lawrence Block fan.  I’ve read all the Matthew Scudder novels, most several times.  And so I opened A Drop of the Hard Stuff with all the backstory, all the characters who have woven through Scudder’s fictional – but still very real for the reader – life.  Elaine.  Mick Ballou.  TJ.  Danny Boyle Bell.   Cop Joe Durkin.  Matt’s sponsor, Jim Farber.

And for people like me, wow.  There’s no disappointment – we’re in excellent hands.  Some of my favorite characters aren’t in this book, because Block has chosen to loop back to the past – a past before smart phones, before Google, when a man trying to maintain his sobriety carries quarters for the pay phone and subway tokens so he can always get to a meeting.   And some characters are – it brought  a lump to my throat to see Jim Farber again.

The author uses a framing device – the hoary “let me tell you a story, my friend” convention.  In this case, it’s Scudder doing the telling and his old friend, Mick Ballou, listening, after hours in the bar where a harsher Ballou put on his father’s blood-stained apron to go to the butcher’s mass.   And then we’re back in the past, when Scudder encounters former childhood friend, criminal-gone-good and recovering alcoholic Jack Ellery.  He’s about a year further down the road than Matt, and working the 12 steps of AA religiously with his sponsor.  He’s to the step where he’s made the list of all those he’s wronged… and now it’s time to make amends.  And make them he does.  Until someone kills him.

It’s up to Matt to unravel the mystery, even as his love life unravels and he faces an uncertain future… for how certain can the future be, if you are only planning one day at a time?

Always masterful, Block gives you plenty of entertainment as the plot unfurls and waves the bad guy under your nose in a way that makes you later slap your forehead and say, “Oh geez, of course!”   One thing I like about Scudder as a character is that he’s smart, but not super-human, and bad things happen to people he cares about and he figures it out eventually, but not usually in a “Superman-saves-the-day” kind of way.

A Drop of the Hard Stuff doesn’t disappoint.  While Matt solves the crime, the bad guy seems to get away scot free.   But as the closing conversation between Matt and Mick demonstrates, some things change.   And others endure.

Read an interview with Lawrence Block here.  And check out his fan page on Facebook here.

Linwood Barclay’s Debut Mystery a Madcap Ride

While I was in NYC, the New York Times had a review of the new Harlan Coben book (Caught) which compared Coben to thriller writer Linwood Barclay (specifically his novel Never Look Away).  While vacationing, I read the two books back to back.  But I’ll have to keep you in suspense regarding my take on that argument.   I’ve assembled you here today so we can all hail Linwood Barclay’s whackier side.

I’m not tipping my hand when I say that I enjoyed Barclay’s thriller enough to visit the Oak Park Public Library website and put all his previously published books on hold.  I went and picked them up.  Looking them over, it was like the kid’s matching game “which of these things is not like the other?  Which of these things doesn’t belong?”  Instead of a fear-inspiring title, it was quirky.  Instead of tense, edgy, cover art… it was sort of cartoon-y.  An even bigger tipoff:  a promo line that read “life in the suburbs can be murder.”

Bad Move is hilarious.  The premise is this:  science fiction writer Zachary Walker is on the OCD side when it comes to safety, in the best of circumstances.  Now that he has a wife and a growing family, his urban life (homeless people, drugs, hookers, etc.) seems just too fraught with potential disaster.  So the Walkers sell their nicely appreciated home and move to the suburbs.  But the neatly manicured lawns and the freshly painted new construction homes just put a bright face on the slimy underbelly of the community.   A murdered conservationist, crooked builder, indoor pot farming neighbor, and attractive accountant/dominatrix throw one surprise after another Zach’s way.

What makes it work is the fresh and funny protagonist.  Who but Zach Walker would get so worked up about his wife leaving his keys in the door that he’d try to teach her a lesson by surreptitiously moving her car down the block?  In his mind, Sarah’s response would be to slap her hand to her forehead, say “Oh, no!  I am so stupid!  I never should have left my keys where anyone could take them!  Now they have not only stolen my car, but perhaps will return later and murder my family in our sleep!”  (Needless to say, this is not actual dialogue from the book, I’m making it up to illustrate the point.) When Zach steps forward to admit that there is no actual danger, she will be relieved and grateful, and will have learned a valuable lesson.

What really happens?  She sees the car is gone, calls the police, and gets mad as hell when she realizes the whole thing is a stunt.  Poor Zach.  Life in his mind is so much more satisfying than real life.

That’s why there’s a satisfying bit of karma when Zach snatches what he thinks is his wife’s purse from their shopping cart, tucking it into the trunk of their car and smugly imagining her chagrined admission of how wrong she was and how right he is.   But Sarah’s already learned that lesson, and is wearing a fanny pack.  It’s not her purse.  Zach’s holier than thou purse-snatching leads to the discovery of counterfeit money, pornographic pictures, and yet another body.

This is the first book in a series featuring Zachary Walker – and it’s well-worth reading.  It puts me in mind of Parnell Hall’s Stanley Hastings books (about the world’s most inept private investigator), Lawrence Block’s Bernie Rhodenbarr (professional burglar extraordinaire) series, and of course, the as-yet unpublished works of Karen Burgess (the Paula Berger series about a washed-up actress).  Barclay is a former journalist, married 30+ years, and father to two – and he mines his experiences to great effect in Bad Move.

My plan:  to read the books in order and let you know my related thoughts.  I’m looking forward to exploring Barclay’s transition from humorous mystery to thriller writer.