Saturday, December 1, 2012

Lawrence Block: Hit Me

Today I welcome back Lawrence Block, one of the most widely recognized names in the mystery genre. Larry has been a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America and is a four-time winner of the Edgar and Shamus Awards, as well as a recipient of prizes in France, Germany, and Japan. He received the Diamond Dagger from the British Crime Writers' Association—only the third American to be given this award. He is a prolific author, having written more than fifty books and numerous short stories, and is a devoted New Yorker and an enthusiastic global traveler.

Lawrence Block: HIT ME 

It all started with a short story…

 “Answers to Soldier,” I called it. Keller, a hit man, flies from New York to Oregon, where the Witness Protection Plan has someone tucked away, running a Quick-Print shop. He makes the mistake of getting to know the guy, sympathizes with him, and has fantasies about giving up his trade and living a similar life, perhaps in that very town. He spends a few days bonding with the man, and even gets a realtor to show him houses.

Then one morning he comes to his senses, strangles the guy, and goes home.

The story worked nicely, but it was the character who lodged firmly in my imagination. I found more stories to tell about him, until I had ten of them; together, they amounted to an episodic novel, published by William Morrow as Hit Man.

The last chapter finds Keller ready to retire, and prepared to enliven his retirement by returning to stamp collecting, his boyhood pastime. But by the time the book ends, his hobby has made serious inroads upon his retirement fund, so it looks as though he may not be retiring after all.

 (“Retiring?” says Dot. “I can’t see it, Keller. Shy, maybe. But not retiring.”)

A second book, Hit List, has more of an ongoing arc to it, as Keller finds himself the unwitting target of another assassin. But it’s essentially episodic, because when you kill people for a living, well, you’re apt to be leading an episodic life. Hit List, too, was well received, and Keller was beginning to emerge as a guilty pleasure for a number of readers. “I found myself looking off into the middle distance,” a woman in Marin County told me at a reading, “and I actually said out loud, ‘Well, so he kills people. What’s so bad about that?’”

He killed some more people in Hit Parade. And then, in Hit and Run, he’s set up as the fall guy in a political assassination. His whole world falls apart, and the life he’s enjoyed for all these years is over. He winds up in New Orleans, with a new name (Nicholas Edwards), a new wife (the former Julia Roussard), a new profession (rehabbing houses in the wake of Katrina), and a baby on the way.

So he’s retired, right?

You’d think so. But stamps can be expensive, and Keller’s collection is quite advanced. (He collects worldwide issues from 1840 to 1940. So, as it happens, do I. How’s that for coincidence?)

And the economic meltdown has stomped the rehab trade flat as a fritter, and one day the phone rings, and it’s Dot.


Thus Hit Me. In it, Keller begins in Dallas, taking care of business between sessions at a stamp auction. Another assignment involving a felonious monk leads him to risk a return to New York, where someone recognizes him within hours of his arrival. Julia joins him on a Caribbean cruise, but he’s on his own when he flies to Cheyenne to look at a stamp collection—with side trips to Denver, where there’s a bit of business to sort out. And by the time he gets back home, he’s ready to retire for good.

Until one more call from Dot sends him shuffling off to Buffalo…

The advance reviews have been uniformly enthusiastic, and only false modesty prevents me from quoting them at length. Playboy, where most of Hit Man appeared initially as short stories, will run an excerpt of Hit Me in their January issue. Advance orders are strong, and we’ve had brisk sales for Mysterious Bookshop’s 500-copy limited Philatelic Edition

All of this is gratifying, but while preparing this piece I’ve been struck by a theme that’s been a constant ever since that first story.

The poor bastard. All he’s ever wanted to do is retire, and he can’t stick with it.

Damn. I wonder what that’s like…

Lawrence Block with Ann Bannon, legendary author of 50s-era lesbian fiction

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