Lawrence Block has been writing since God was in his heaven and Kennedy in the White House.
That he’s had an esteemed career goes without saying. He’s written slight pulpy books (After the First Death), Bigger City-wide Blockbusters (the counterintuitively named Small Town, movie scripts (Wong Kar Wai’s Blueberry Nights), and reams of commentary on, instruction for and inspirational words to writers (his Telling Lies For Fun and Profit has been a constant in my life for many years).
And he’s been incredibly flexible. In his Seventies, Block, seeing the changes in the publishing landscape, and recognising that the relationship between publishers, authors and readers was being redefined, began to self publish, to digitally publish, and to actively use his website, eNewsletters, EBay and direct sales to get his books – at prices which allowed him to make some coin on the transactions – into the hands of people who wanted to have them.
Considering he’s just three years off his 80th birthday, this might seem an odd development for an elder statesman, who might be expected to have grown used to sitting on his laurels while the publishers and their marketing department sold the books.
But Lawrence Block – like the late Jackie Collins – comes from a different place. A place which is funky and dimly lit, and very often looked down on by publishing and critics, dismissed as lesser, cheaper, dirtier. A place where Give ‘em what they want, and Get paid first are not dirty words.
Because – before he’s a writer, Lawrence Block is a Pulpiste. He writes books that are fun, but functional. He tells stories that are sometimes shocking, often a little unlikely, occasionally incredible, and always – always – engaging. And he makes characters that, at times in my life, I have loved as much as – if not more than – my own family.
I don’t think I’ve ever read a Block story that didn’t make me feel something. Even when (and there are one or two – especially amongst the earlier shorts) they’re, all told, hokum, there’ll still be something – a character, a plot line or device, hell, even just his narrative voice that you just can’t help falling in love with.
And so to The Girl With The Deep Blue Eyes, his first “New” story in a while (we’ll get to those quote marks in a minute). It’s not Tolstoy, but it’s close to being (if I can mix my narrative fiction and my playwrighting metaphors) a hot sweaty Floridian Ibsen. With anal.
The “New” bit is because, of course, as a Noir, it’s not a new story at all: Morally uncertain man meets dazzlingly beautiful woman with a wealthy, older husband who simply will not die. He falls for her big time, and decides that the husband has to go. Telling more of the plot would, I think, ruin it for you, but suffice it to say that many of the tropes you’d expect are here, except that, as they are being delivered by a master, they’re fresh, self aware and, at times, self-referential; the amount of Noir movies on TCM is a particularly fun touch that as good as cries out I am a Post-Modern Noir Novel. Except, of course, it’s Post-nothing, and not even particularly modern. It takes place today, but could just as easily be happening at any time from the 30s to the 90s.
Lisa, the Girl in question is a real twist for me. She’s supposed – in Noirs – to be a bad girl. A charmer and deceiver of men. Someone who bewitches our hero Doake, and, having used him to dispose of her husband, leaves him to pick the pieces up. Most of this book is spent waiting to see if this will happen, or if – just this once – she’ll turn out to be a good woman…
Likewise Doake Miller, who begins as a bit of a chump – all drearily failed marriage, House by the creek and no aspirations of any note beyond bedding the next chick – is drawn in such a way that, as the book progresses, your sense of him moves through mild disomfort to a point where you realise you might just have spent two hundred pages rooting for a monster.
Because what is “New,’ what does feel fresh is the way in which Block tells the story, until you realise that what you’ve been reading was never really about the execution of a murder, and whether or not they would get away with it, but about the girl and the chump, whether anything pure can survive in a world of corruption, and the question of whether you can ever really know people…
There’s sex here, as the publishers have excitedly trumpeted, some readers have casually observed, and some shocked fans have discovered too late to avert their gaze. And it’s erotic, but it totally passes the pornography test: It’s not prurient, and – despite the kinkiness on display (from maiesiophilia to asphyxiation) – it serves an artistic purpose. It shows Doake as a character that’s apart, on the edge, and battling, it seems, at times, to pull away from the darkness.
Does he succeed? Or does the darkness engulf him? I’m not sure I can answer that one. Why don’t you read it and tell me if you think he does.