Catch and Release: Stories by Lawrence Block: (A Book Review)
As usual, we are concerned with four basic questions, in no particular order: 1) What is the book "Catch and Release"?; 2) How is it put together? 3) What is it trying to do?; 4) How does all of this relate to the various individual literary tastes?
First some preliminaries: The edition of the book I'm holding in my hands is hardcover, almost 284 pages. It is a Hard Case Crime book, which is put out by the Subterranean Press, copyrighted by Mr. Block n the year of 2013.
The book is a collection of seventeen stories, all of which have been written years and decades earlier.
What are we looking at here?
These seventeen stories are crime stories not mysteries. What makes them 'crime' stories is the fact that the criminals (killers) are known from the start, by us, the readers; we are plainly given this. There is no question of trying to solve a cleverly constructed situational puzzle, as is the case with 'mysteries.' The issue with 'crime' stories is: Why is the 'bad' guy doing what he is doing what he is doing? Will he get away with it?: and how does he feel about either what he has done or his ongoing criminal activities?
These seventeen stories are 'crime' stories, not mystery 'whodunnit' stories.
These stories are neither 'suspense' tales nor 'thrillers.' They are not 'suspense' stories---as I usually define the term---because the plots are not built around an element of time-urgency. That is to say, we are never presented with any scenario in which the protagonist must do x, y, or z before a certain time window closes or the sky falls or hell freezes over, whatever. Do you follow?
These stories are not 'thrillers' because in none of them is the action presented in terms of what I like to call 'momentous immediacy.' What I mean by that, here, is that these stories lay across the action in an almost casual manner.
What I'm trying to say is that this collection of stories are murder fiction. The issue is: Why do these people kill? Another thing I should say is that these stories are all constructed in such a way that there is never a question of oppositional forces of the 'good guys,' that is to say police or private investigators, or something like that. The story collection might have been aptly called something like: A Study of Murder or Portrait of Murder or some documentary-sounding title like Why They Murder or something like that.
The collection of stories, in fact, comprise a book that is profoundly analytically probative.
These are not stories about people robbing banks or high jacking trucks or planes or anything like that. As I said, this is murder fiction, for the most part.
A Vision In White
This is a story about obsession. Professional women's tennis is the background. One way to think about this story is like this: A man worships a woman tennis player, becomes obsessed with her, and while he is in such a state over her, he makes her his goddess. When she has lost her divine power for him, he must kill her and set another on that vacated pedestal.
Catch and Release
One way to think about this story is like so: Its about a sexually sadistic serial killer who tries to stop; but like any addiction, it gets the better of him every now and then. The world of hitchhiking is the background.
This is a story about a female sexually-activated serial killer (of men). For her, the path of targeted murder is the road for the symbolic (but perhaps to her mind, real) restoration of virginity.
Part of the Job
This is the most whimsical of the stories, pure entertainment and fun. Its gives you a break from the analytical and fascinating rest of the book. I don't want to say anymore because to do so would be to give too much away.
Who Knows Where It Goes
This is a story about a man, a former contract killer, who has to get back into that business after a national economic downturn has depressed his current legitimate business. But it has been a long time since he murdered for money. You won't believe how he finds out whether or not he still has the right stuff.
See the Woman
This story concerns domestic abuse and police involvement with it. The ending is tragic and predictable, but no less powerfully rendered by Lawrence Block for it.
Let's just say this is a story about imagination.
Dolly's Trash and Treasures
In this story the inner psychological world of the hoarder is the canvass upon which the master, Mr. Lawrence Block paints a portrait of death, possibly murder.
Speaking of Greed and Speaking of Lust
If you are like me, you will find these two interconnected stories the most challenging and engrossing of the collection. There is a card game, the participants are: a priest, a soldier, doctor, policeman, and a flatulent senior citizen, 'neither fully asleep nor fully awake.' They all tell stories on the themes of greed and lust, most of which culminate in murder.
I hope I have given you a decent sample of what you will be in for should you decide to either buy this book from the bookstore or check it out at your local library and read it. This is not light, beach reading. It is not 'cozy'-type 'mystery' literature to enjoy over cookies and cocoa. However, there is something about Mr. Block's prose style that prevents the literature from sinking into Edgar Allan Poe-like morbidity, if that makes sense.
Mr. Block's prose style is distinctive, in my opinion. If you know his work well, you can read a few sentences of something and get a good idea if it came from his word processor or not. I suppose I would say that his prose style is ironic, with its own distinct verbal signatures, if that makes sense.
What do I mean by 'ironic' as it pertains to my view of Lawrence Block's prose style?
I define irony as the collision of two separate realities, each of which undermines the other, such that you wouldn't think such a structure could hold together, but it does. It is precisely such an outcome that makes us say: Isn't it ironic?
Suppose I said to you: Out of the five brothers who emigrated to the United States from Italy, it was Gino, the one who wanted to be the most American of them all, who was deported back to Italy.
The irony is this: 1) Gino's superlative self-identification with and desire to be 'American'; juxtaposed against 2) the fact of his deportation out of the United States to Italy (a fate that did not find his four brothers, who, were presumably a bit less gung-ho about being 'American' than Gino).
Those two things don't naturally go together. If Gino, out of the five brothers who emigrated to the United States from Italy, has the superlative self-identification with and desire to be 'American,' he is the last one out of the brothers who should either do anything to mess that up; or he is the last one who one would think fate would select thwart in this way.
For this reason we would say something to the effect of: Isn't it ironic that Gino, out of all the five brothers who emigrated into the United States from Italy, who wanted to be more American than any of them, is the one who got deported from the United States back to Italy?
I hope that's clear.
Now then, in applying this sense of 'irony' to my assessment of Lawrence Block's prose style, I am talking about prose which does not let characters take themselves too seriously, certainly morbidly so. Irony, in Mr. Block's hands, gives his stories an interesting dash of humor. You will find irony in the stories: Who knows Where It Goes; Welcome to the Real World; Part of the Job; A Burglar's Eye View of Greed; and How Far, a screenplay.
I suppose when I talk about 'irony,' as it pertains to some of the stories in this collection, I'm talking about 'gallows' humor. There is a kind of gallows humor in Mr. Block's work; and so, you can throw in the story Catch and Release as a story suffused with irony.
Okay, I do believe I shall leave it there. I hope you enjoy the book as much as I did; and I hope you read it again, as I shall.
Thank you so much for reading!
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