Hit Me: A Book Review
Today we're going to look at the crime novel Hit Me by Lawrence Block. Mr. Block is definitely a crime fiction writer. I do not know if he is also a mystery writer as well---he may be for all I know. You see, to me, crime and mystery fiction are two different genres.
Mysteries are whodunnits. The question is who did the crime, usually murder.
Crime fiction, strictly speaking, does not present the question of who did the crime. That is typically made quite clear from the start, from the perspective of the reader. The question is how is he going to get away with the crime, if he is going to get away with it.
I am only personally familiar with Lawrence Block's novel's concerning a hit man named John Keller, which are crime novels. Block is a prolific author who has published something like sixty books. Some of them may be indeed mysteries.
I do know as a matter of osmosis that he certainly writes detective novels in addition to the crime fiction, some of which I am personally familiar with. He has created several, apparently long-term sustaining characters. There are the Matthew Scudder novels, The Bernie Rhodenbarr Mysteries, The Adventures of Evan Turner, and The Affairs of Chip Harrison, among many other novels and short story collections.
I say this because, to my way of thinking, a detective (whether private or public as in the police) novel can be a mystery; on the other hand, a detective novel does not necessarily have to be a mystery, it can be a crime novel.
What am I talking about?
There was one novel I read by Mr. Block, that had nothing to do with Keller. I forget the name of it, but the book featured a police detective, which is the usual set up for a "mystery." But the identity of the killer was only a mystery from the perspective of the detective within the story; it was not a mystery from the perspective of the reader. The identity of the culprit was plainly stated almost from the beginning, as I recall. Think of it as the classic "Columbo" scenario.
That is why I say I don't know whether or not Mr. Block writes straight up "whodunit" mysteries.
Hit Me is the latest in a series of novels by Lawrence Block concerning the hit man, John Keller. The series include: Hit Man, Hit List, Hit Parade, and Hit and Run.
Why are the Keller novels so 'compulsively readable'?
Yes, I am claiming that the Keller novels by Lawrence Block are 'compulsively readable.' I know that is a phrase that is carelessly thrown around, but I mean it quite literally. That is to say that, in my opinion, the Keller novels are literally compulsively readable. I have three reasons for making this assertion.
1. Lawrence Block, as a writer, is what I would call a prose stylist. What I mean by that---prose stylist---is that I find myself entertained by the very way he uses languages, quite apart from the actual plots he develops. For me, then, as it pertains to Block's writing style, "the journey is the destination," in this sense.
A. All of this begs the question: What is Lawrence Block's way with prose, such that I call him a prose stylist, whose very use of language is so entertaining quite apart from his actual plot lines?
Well, I would call Block (like John Grisham, Elmore Leonard, to a certain extent Mario Puzo, and one or two others) a definite stylistic descendant of Hemmingway, with his famously telegraphic stripped-down approach. Hemmingway really changed the way prose was written in fiction---the emphasis being on simple, strong, clean, powerful sentences, with adverbs and adjectives kept to a minimum.
Having said all of this, these descendants of Hemmingway (Block, Grisham, Puzo, and so many others) are each individuals, whose take on this approach is all their own. Using a certain technique, each develops his own style. Its just like boxing. There is one technique but as many "styles" as there are boxers.
At any rate, my first reason for saying that Lawrence Block's Keller novels are literally 'compulsively readable' in my opinion, is because I consider the author a "prose stylist." This makes his books fun to read for the way he uses language and fast-paced reads.
2. My second reason for saying that, in my opinion, the Keller novels are 'compulsively readable,' is intimately connected with my first reason. That second reason is that I am fascinated with the tone he has set for these novels. That tone makes me ask myself the question: Is this meant to be a "deadly serious" book about a professional assassin or a kind of "dark comedy" about said hit man?
a. Of course, on one level, these books are about the deadly serious books about the life of a killer-for-hire. You cannot get more serious than that.
b. On the other hand, however, the tone these books set mitigates against keeping the reader's focus on the "deadly serious" aspect of what we are reading. That "mitigating" factor is the tone, which is ironic.
c. What do I mean when I say that the Keller novels have an ironic tone?
d. What do I mean when I say that it is the "ironic tone" of these books that "mitigate against" keeping our focus on the "deadly serious" aspect on what we are reading?
e. Why do I find these appealing? Why do I think some of you, reading this, may find this appealing?
The Ironic Tone
Question: First of all, what is irony?
The way I define the term is like this: Irony is the coming together of two planes of reality in such a way that each undermines the other. The two fused planes of reality form a structure in which each half belies the other. We're talking about a structure of reality, whose internal structural integrity is precarious. It may not be long before "something's got to give." Sometimes such an incongruous structure can result in someone being called a hypocrite.
A hypocrite, of course, is someone whose professed thoughts and attitudes about a particular subject is in direct contradiction to his actions on a given matter, giving them an ironic relationship to something. For example: An narcotics police officer having a cocaine habit.
Now, Keller's ironic disposition does not approach that extreme. He is not a professional hit man and an anti-war protestor or something like that.
The "ironic tone" comes through, for me, in the contradiction of John Keller (in this novel, he's changed his name to Nicholas Edwards) between his profession as a killer-for-hire---and an extremely effective and prolific one---and the fact that in the rest of his ordinary life, he is actually a very nice, likable, quirky, neurotic man with a lovely wife, Julia, and a small daughter, Jenny.
All series-long Keller has been a stamp collector, serious about it. He's a philatelist, which is the proper, technical term for a stamp collector. He buys the catalogues, subscribes to the newsletters, goes to the conventions, and bids on stamps at auctions. He is something of a generalist; he collects worldwide up to 1940.
So, his genuine, hard guy assassin role comes together with his genuine nice guy-neurotic aspect. Each one, in my opinion, seems to undermine the other. The two don't seem like they go together.
The Ironic Tone Mitigating Against the "Deadly Serious" Aspect of the Novels
This is best seen in his exchanges with Dot, his dispatcher/boss/friend. She, Dot, is the one who contacts Keller with his killing assignments.
Here's an example of what I mean. This is just one scene between Keller and Dot. She is calling on the phone with a job of assassinating a Catholic priest. "Listen" (pages 72-73):
Dot: You may have heard about the case. Or caught it on the evening news. Political corruption in northern New Jersey.
Keller: I'm shocked.
Dot: I know. It's almost impossible to believe. Elected public officials taking bribes, laundering money, selling kidneys---
Keller: Selling kidneys?
Dot: So I understand, though who'd want to buy a politician's kidney is a question I'd be hard put to answer. You must have seen something in the paper or on TV.
Keller: In New Orleans, we don't pay much mind to political corruption in faraway places.
Dot: Y'all like to eat your own cooking?
Keller: There you go.
Dot: A lot of people got arrested, Keller, and a couple of them went so far as to resign, but most of them are out on bail and still collecting their municipal paychecks. But it looks as though they'll all have to step down sooner or later, and the abbot will probably have to give up his position, and---
Keller: The abbot?
Dot: Well, I don't see how he can go on heading the monastery.
Keller: There's an abbot heading a monastery?
Dot: Keller, that's what they do. Not all of them can be partners with Lou Costello. I don't know how any of this works. I guess he can go on being a monk, unless he gets defrocked. And as for the other monks, well, I guess they'll go on doing what they do. What do they do, anyway?
Keller: Pray. Bake bread. Make cordials.
Keller: Benedictine? Chartreuse?
Dot: Monks make those? I thought it was Seagram's.
Keller: Monks started it. Maybe they sold the business. I think basically they pray, and maybe work in the garden.
Dot: The garden-variety monks work in the garden. The laundry-variety monks keep themselves occupied with money and kidneys. See, the abbot was in cahoots with all the politicians.
Keller: Felonious monks. Dot? You don't think that was funny?
Dot: I chuckled a little, the first time I heard it.
Keller: I just made it up.
Dot: You and every newscaster in the country.
Dot: Long story short, here's the long and short of it. The abbot's the guy who knows where all the kidneys are buried. If he talks, nobody walks. Keller? You beginning to get a sense of what your role's going to be?
You see, Dot is also a nice, likable, quirky, slightly neurotic person whose personality belies her profession. This scene is representative of her exchanges with Keller throughout this novel and throughout the series. Something like this, to a greater or lesser degree also characterizes the exchanges between Keller and his wife, and everybody else in the series. This is what I mean by the ironic tone of this and every novel in this series. And this is also what I mean when I say that it is that ironic tone, which, for me, "mitigates against" focusing overmuch on the "deadly serious" aspect of what one is reading; and it is this tension which makes me waver between calling this a hardcore book/series about a professional hit man and a "dark comedy" about the same.
Why do I find this ironic tone enjoyable? Why do I think that some of you out there, reading this, might find this series of book enjoyable as well, for precisely this reason?
I'm going to wrap up with this. I think of Lawrence Block---at least as I have come to know his work through the Hit Man novels featuring John Keller---as the Quentin Tarantino of crime fiction literature.
Then again, since Mr. Block is older man, perhaps I should say that Quentin Tarantino is the Lawrence Block of film.
But then, yet again, since, as I would venture to say, Mr. Tarantino is by far the more widely known figure, we should probably hold with the first formulation of the comparison.
What I'm saying is that if you like Quentin Tarantino's movies, what he does with the crime drama---as I most certainly do---then, I believe you will find what Mr. Block does with it in literature as well, in my opinion. I believe that because it seems to me that Block and Tarantino, essentially, do the same thing.
Its not just that they "humanize" their bad guys.
Its not just that they make their bad guys "sympathetic" and "complex."
It is that they both simply let their bad guys be full human beings, people who lead real lives when they're not committing crimes. They let their bad guys have their distinct personalities, interests, hobbies, quirks, obsessions, and the like, quite apart from what they do in the underworld. Even now, in this day and age, not many authors and directors take this approach; it is something original with these gentlemen. Think about the quirky conversations the two hit men (Travolta and Jackson) had in Pulp Fiction; the same thing in Reservoir Dogs, but not so much in Jackie Brown, I must say; and truth be told, Tarantino sort of went away from that in the Kill Bill films. Still, you get the idea, I hope.
This review is, as you can probably tell, more of a recommendation for the entire series of Lawrence Block novels featuring the hit man John Keller rather than just this latest novel, Hit Me. Let me say that the strongest recommendation I can make for this series is to say that what keeps me reading these books is my desire to finally find out how a nice guy like Keller ever got into the murder-for-hire business.
Thank you so much for reading.