Friday, October 10, 2008

Hit and Run by Lawrence Block

Hit and Run is the fourth novel in Block's most recent series, "Keller's Greatest Hits," about a sympathetic hitman. To be more precise, it's the first novel in the series, since the previous three books -- Hit Man, Hit List, and Hit Parade -- were actually fix-ups of short stories.

This series shows Block's fascination with routine and with what people find themselves doing. (I commented on this a bit when I wrote about Hit Parade.) Keller drifted into the killing-people-for-money business when he was young, and just never drifted out of it over the course of a long career. But, as this book begins, he's been slowing down and toying with the idea of retiring. He's older -- how old, we don't exactly know, but probably in his forties -- and he has more than enough money, even given his occasionally expensive stamp-collecting hobby. His only connection with that world is Dot, who is essentially his booking agent: various bad guys know her, and call her when they need someone dead, and she passes on the details to Keller.

So he's doing what they both think of as "one last job" -- out in Iowa to kill a random man because a voice on the phone to Dot sent over a large pile of money -- when the visiting governor of Iowa is killed, very publicly and messily, by a gun that Keller had handled. And very soon thereafter, the people framing him get his picture into the hands of the authorities.

Keller is left in Des Moines, nearly broke, with credit cards in the name of a governor's assassin, needing to get back to New York, Oh -- and Dot isn't answering the phone any more. In the hands of another writer, in another series, that would turn into a thriller. But it doesn't for Keller, not really. There are thrills, but Hit and Run doesn't dwell on them, and doesn't hasten its steady, measured pace for false drama along the way.

Keller does make his way back to New York, and on to other places, and he is on the run from the police. But the point of Hit and Run isn't the running, or the tension, or the fear (or even the revenge at the end, against the people who set him up) -- it's about Keller. Hit and Run is that unlikeliest of things in any commercial genre, a closely modeled novel of character.

Block has come through the mystery field, somehow -- he's spent fifty years writing all types of mysteries and thrillers, carefully and quickly, in series and solo, under his own name and various pseudonyms, and has gotten to the point where what he writes is a mystery novel just because he's the one writing it, just because he's internalized every lesson the field can teach -- or just because that's what we expect from a book with "Lawrence Block" on the cover. But the Keller books have very little of the mystery genre in them, and they're all the better for that. Hit and Run, in particular, is a thoughtful, even quiet novel about a man whose life is turned upside down and has to rebuild it in a new way. It's tremendously exciting to see a writer like Block, at this point in his career, still achieving successes like Hit and Run and still pushing onward to do new things.

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