Thursday, August 23, 2018


The following article by the amazingly talented and prolific author Lawrence Block appeared in Spies & Secret Agents, the theme of the latest issue of Mystery Readers Journal (Volume 34:2). Thanks, Larry!

Lawrence Block:
Tanner Comes in from the Cold

I made the acquaintance of Evan Tanner a year or two before I started writing about him. Two odd facts called themselves to my attention at about the same time: There were a few documented instances of people who never slept at all, and some German chap was the lineal Stuart Pretender to the English throne. So I found myself imagining what life might be like with an extra eight hours of consciousness each day, and along with other traits, I decided the insomniac fellow would champion the Pretender’s cause.

And that’s as far as that went.

Until 1965, when I actually held a job, my first and last since college. I was in Racine, Wisconsin, editing the Whitman Numismatic Journal (and if you don’t own a set of those issues, how can you call yourself a Lawrence Block completist?)

One day at the office I met a fellow named Lincoln W. Higgie, home on a visit after a stretch in Istanbul, where he made a very precarious living smuggling rare coins and antiquities out of the country. (Why precarious? Because if the authorities caught you, they were apt to kill you. That precarious enough for you?)

We hit it off well enough for me to invite him home for dinner, and after dinner he and I pretty much flattened a fifth of Bushmill’s. We sat and drank and talked, and he did more talking than I did because he had way more interesting exploits to recount. Like the time he boarded a plane to Zurich with some relic that he intended to put in an auction at the Bank Leu, and something gave him a funny feeling, and he took out the wrapped relic and asked the pleasant middle-aged woman seated next to him if she’d mind putting it in her carry-on luggage for the time being.

She agreed, and moments later some uniformed chaps stood him up and searched him, and went through his own hand luggage, and sighed when they found nothing. And when the plane landed in Switzerland, the woman handed over the parcel. “I don’t know what this is,” she said, “and I don’t ever want to know, but that was quite exciting, wasn’t it?”

Damn right I let him do the talking.

And a couple of drinks later, he told me an intricate story of the Armenian community of Smyrna (aka Izmir) at the time of the genocide at the hands of the Turks. The Armenians all gathered their gold, he said, and stowed it beneath the porch of a house in Balikesir, and that was the end of it. Until half a century later a couple of Americans working for Aramco heard the story and decided to hunt for the gold. They managed through considerable research to locate the very house, and broke into the concrete vault beneath the porch, and learned that (a) the story was true, and (b) somebody beat them to it, because the gold was gone.

I may have some details wrong. This was 53 years ago, and, not to put too fine a point on it, Bill Higgie was not the only one hitting the Bushmill’s. I may not have held up my end of the conversation, but I had the drinking part down pat.

Now here’s what’s remarkable, and what makes it abundantly clear Evan Tanner wanted to make an entrance. When I awoke the next morning, I actually remembered the conversation!

And I thought about that golden hoard, as it were, and realized I now had something for my sleepless knight to do. He’d be committed not to a single lost cause but to a whole portfolio thereof, and one of them would be the League for the Restoration of Cilician Armenia, and he’d learn about that house in Balikesir, and he’d go there.

This time, however, the gold would still be there, waiting for him.

A couple of months later, after I’d decided it was time to bid adieu to honest work, I sat down and wrote what became The Thief Who Couldn’t Sleep. I had by this point in life written a few dozen books, including two or three under my own name, but this was the first book in which I’d managed to find a voice that was uniquely mine. I loved writing about Tanner, and in the course of the next several years I turned out six more books about him.

Looking back, I’m amazed at my cavalier attitude toward research. Tanner went all over the world, and it wasn’t until his fifth adventure, Tanner’s Tiger, that he visited a country where I’d set foot myself. (That was Canada. He was turned back at the border, but found someone to smuggle him across.)

So I didn’t have firsthand knowledge of the places he visited, nor did I have much in the way of second- or third-hand knowledge. It’s not as though I spent a lot of time in libraries on Tanner’s behalf. I owned a 1948 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and any fact unknown to it remained unknown to me.

I stopped writing about Tanner in 1970; Me Tanner, You Jane was the last volume, and I’m not entirely sure why I aborted the series at that point. It seemed to me that the books were too much the same, that he kept meeting the same types of people, that I’d taken the premise as far as it could go.

Then, 28 years later, I wrote Tanner on Ice.

No one could have been more surprised than I. Here’s what happened: my publisher at Dutton, Elaine Koster, had decided to reissue the seven Tanner books as NAL paperbacks. I had occasion to read the first volume in galleys, and I liked it, and remembered how much fun it had been to write them. And wouldn’t it be nice if I could come up with an eighth book to join the others?

But how could I? Tanner had been wounded in the Korean War, that’s when a shred of shrapnel took out his sleep center, and this made him way too old to be leaping international borders in a single bound. By now he’d have problem enough climbing the three or four flights of stairs to his Upper West Side apartment. (Three flights? Four flights? 105th Street? 107th Street? Hey, don’t ask me. It’s not in the Britannica, so how the hell would I know?)

No, he had to be the same age as he was in Me Tanner, You Jane. And the missing time had to be accounted for.

And all of this was plainly impossible.

Until the evening when I was at a concert at Avery Fisher Hall, and my mind wandered, and I realized what had happened to Evan Tanner. He’d been drugged by agents of the Swedish government, and, because they were way too Scandinavian to kill him outright, he’d spent a quarter of a century in a frozen-food locker in Union City, New Jersey. And when they thawed him out—very carefully!—he hadn’t aged a day.

Once I got the idea I had to write the book. And this time he had reason to go to Burma, a country I’d recently visited. (You can call it Myanmar if you wish. I, like most of the Burmese, will stick to the old name.)

I wrote the book in Listowel, a town in County Kerry of which I’m inordinately fond. And, because this was in 1998, and I was concerned about having computer problems in a foreign land, I left my Mac at home and wrote it by hand. But here’s the thing: sitting at a desk in my room at the Listowel Arms, I picked up a pen and bent over a yellow legal pad. And when I started writing, Tanner was simply there. I didn’t have to work to get his voice right, or to know his views on whatever matters came up. I’ll tell you, it was as though he’d spent the past 28 years in some otherwise unoccupied brain cells of mine, just waiting for a chance to resume talking.

And he’s still talking, I should point out, he sounds a lot like Theo Holland. That’s the skilled voice artist with whom I’ve teamed up to issue Tanner in audio. His most recent effort, readily available via Amazon or Audible, is Tanner’s Virgin. (That’s book six, which you may know as Here Comes a Hero, an unfortunate title someone at Fawcett came up with. I like Tanner’s Virgin a lot better, don’t you?)

So of course people have asked when there’ll be a ninth Evan Tanner novel. “It was 28 years between books seven and eight,” I point out. “The fellow seems to have the life cycle of a cicada. You can look for book nine sometime in 2026.”

You know, that line worked better twenty years ago. All of a sudden 2026 is only eight years away.

Hey, do me a favor. Forget I ever said anything…

Learn more about this prolific, award-winning, sociable mystery author and world traveler at


Maureen Harrington said...

Brilliant! So looking forward to this!

Barry Ergang said...

Great entertaining article about a great entertaining series by a great entertaining writer.