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Here Block gives us an easy-to-read collection of book introductions, freelance articles, and his “Murders on Memory Lane” column from Mystery Scene magazine. All of these pieces are centered on famous crime authors and their novels. Block is always imminently readable, his style sort of reminds me of a rambling conversation with an eccentric uncle.
He is profusely gracious and complimentary toward living writers, but he dishes the dirt on dead ones. For example, he tells an anecdote of Robert Ludlum throwing a tantrum when Robin Cook got a bigger advance than he did. There is a story of Evan Hunter a.k.a. Ed McBain writing sex novels under a pseudonym in order to keep a mistress on the side. There is even a funny anecdote concerning Lucille Ball’s rather demanding sexual proclivities.
The highlight was probably the essay on Scott Meredith, the now-infamous literary editor/agent who ran mail-order scams and collected unethical commissions on every story he bought. The analysis of the works of Robert Parker and Mickey Spillane were insightful and perhaps brutally honest. Charles Wileford sounds like the literary world’s most good-hearted psychopath.
As you might expect in a collection of this format, some observations show up more than once. There is also some overlap with stories already told in Block’s monthly Writer’s Digest columns, which were previously collected in a quartet of books-- Telling Lies for Fun & Profit, Spider Spin Me a Web, Liar’s Bible, and Liar’s Companion.
Still, this is rare, fun stuff if you are a fan of the genre. Some of my favorite quotes are listed below:
Fredric Brown: “When I read Murder Can Be Fun, I had a bottle of bourbon on the table and every time Brown’s hero took a drink, I had a snort myself. This is a hazardous undertaking when in the company of Brown’s characters… By the time the book was finished, so was I.”
Ross Macdonald: “It is one of the singular properties of his fiction that ten minutes after you have turned the last page, every detail of the plot vanishes forever from your mind.”
Jim Thompson: “He is surely an important writer and very much worth reading, but it helps to keep it in mind that the stuff ain’t Shakespeare.”
Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe: “Throughout, he alienates powerful people with his trademark wisecracks for no apparent reason, turns down fees whenever they’re offered to him, and goes through abrupt mood swings that make you wonder if he shouldn’t be on lithium.”
Donald E. Westlake’s Memory: “Don’s manuscript arrived, and we had dinner and put the kid to bed, and I started reading. And my wife went to bed, and I stayed up reading, and after a while I forgot I was having a heart attack, and just kept reading until I finished the book around dawn. And somewhere along the way I became aware that my friend Don… had just produced a great novel.”
Dashiel Hammett: “[He] took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley; he gave murder back to the kind of people who commit it for a reason…. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.”
On himself: “I don’t know that I had all that much interest in making a lot of money, not in my idealistic youth. I was more interested, I seem to recall, in making my parents proud of me, and in impressing girls and maybe, God willing, actually getting laid. But I certainly wanted to be able to support myself by writing, if only to avoid having to do anything else.”
There's only one problem with opening a new non-fiction book by Lawrence Block: Your reading list explodes logarithmically. His newest collection of introductions, eulogies, and other appreciations, The Crime of Our Lives, is no exception. In addition to finding authors I already knew of and enjoyed, like Robert B. Parker and Donald E. Westlake, there were a whole bunch whose work I had never heard of, and another bunch of writers who I dimly remember from school -- all presented so engagingly that I now have a new list of authors to pursue, along with a batch of notes on their various pseudonyms and notable pieces, so I don't miss anything. When I mentioned this to my ex -- also a Lawrence Block fan -- he noted "you don't have to read every author he recommends." "Maybe so," I responded, "but he makes them all sound so engaging."
And that is the truth of Block's writing. Fiction or non-fiction, gentleman thief, assassin, adventurer, ex-cop, running essays, stamp collecting, writing -- Block's work is engaging. I have never read a Block book or story that didn't feel like I was settling in with a good friend for a catch-up session.
In The Crime of Our Lives, he gives overviews of the work of sixteen writers -- peppered with anecdotes about them, about his own life and writing, and about writing and the mystery/crime genres in general. One caveat which Block notes in the beginning, is that he has restricted the subjects of the book to deceased American writers, primarily of the "hard-boiled" variety of fiction, and the list has no women on it. He does note that the last is because Christie and Sayers are British while the female American writers he would include are still living. His reasoning is that he does not wish to assemble a list of favorites and upset friends by their exclusion. In his words: "I have mentioned how generous and amiable mystery writers are, how much I enjoy their company, how well we all get along. If you think I am going to change all that by assembling a list of favorites and leaving some of them off it, you’re out of your mind."*
Among the writers Block covers in this volume: Anthony Boucher, Frederic Brown, Raymond Chandler, Stanley Ellin, Erle Stanley Gardner, Dashiell Hammett, John D. MacDonald, Robert B. Parker, Ellery Queen, Rex Stout, and Donald E. Westlake.
After reading Block's overviews, my first instinct was to go to the Brooklyn Public Library website, find all the books by each writer and start putting them on hold, one writer at a time.
If you are a fan of mysteries, crime stories, noir, or all three, this is an interesting, engaging overview of some of the author's favorite writers, who happen to be among the best in their fields. I highly recommend this book to you. In fact, I recommend this book even if you aren't a fan of the genre. You might just well become a fan after reading it.
*Block, Lawrence (2015-03-26). The Crime of Our Lives (Kindle Locations 286-288). Lawrence Block. Kindle Edition.
In this book, Mr. Block provides wonderful insights into the crime fiction/mystery genre as a whole, enhancing its history with his own. Basically a collection of introductions he has written, each chapter is a story in itself, most containing fascinating information about many of my own favorite writers and the remaining few about writers now at the top of my "To Read" list. I hated for this book to end.
The Crime of Our Lives
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