A very good friend introduced me to Lawrence Block as the greatest living master of detective fiction. That’s a hell of a title to live up to, but my friend (unlike me) is not given to wanton hyperbole.
He handed me Eight Million Ways to Die, and said “Read.” I read. It took me about two days, but that’s only because I need to sleep, and it’s a long book. I then read When the Sacred Gin Mill Closes, and following it every single Matthew Scudder book in existence. There’s a goodly number now. The most recent is just as good as any that came before.
Therefore I say to you in response and retrospect, Lawrence Block is the greatest living master of detective fiction I’ve read, so READ.
I do not have the pedigree that my good friend does to make that recommendation with authority, but I can say that for the last five years I’ve dived into detective fiction with aplomb. I’ve learned from Block and others how powerful the mystery form can be as a structure, as a moral imperative, and as a way to keep people’s attention. As I have read Block, and Huston, and Hammett, and Chandler, and Wolfe, and Doyle, and as I realized that Eco, too, is a mystery author, I have come to love and respect the form. I’ve explored it as I should have in college, finding my love for the genre. This started with Block and Scudder.
I was handed other mysteries before, earlier in life, and a good chunk of my writing style in novels was informed by Fletch, but Scudder was the first time I could really step in there and see the literary bent, the deeper angles of a mystery, as opposed to the mystery as a gimmick. I never really got the fact that a mystery isn’t so much about how clever the writer is with the dilemma and outside conflict, but rather how, when executed well, a good mystery story is really one of the best ways to tell a character story. It is the outside force of a moral atrocity leveled against a person who did not perpetuate it, seeking to make it right, and that PERSON, not the dilemma, is central. In that, the innocent has to get close to the evil in study, and if said innocent is battling demons of his own that may at times take priority, there is a remarkable sense of urgency and poignancy to every action.
As opposed to, say, a lawyer running from a mutagenic beast.
Block, as others, informs Cura by having given me the tools to tell a mystery by weaving it in with someone and something you truly care about, because what is even the most brilliant mystery without a Matthew Scudder to worry for and care for? To that end, sure, maybe you want to know why the Dark Everett got how he is, but you view it through the lens of Charlie’s self-doubt and depression, I would hope.
Block is also incredible at writing about writing. His book Telling Lies For Fun and Profit is probably right up there with On Writing for me. On Writing gave me a bunch of tools to work with, but Telling Lies tells stories of writing that are very similar to my own travails, those strange feelings of inadequacies and process that make you feel alone in the world. The book helps you realize that we’re all going through this together. More than his practical advice about dialogue or pacing, I find that the knowledge of other people out there who go through what I go through and become, well, Lawrence Block, brings comfort to the despair that can come with throwing yourself out there. For that alone, the book is priceless.
It collects articles he wrote over the years, and now there is an eBook sequel of sorts, The Liar’s Bible. Also highly recommended. Reading his books on writing have saved no less than two of my novels already, by virtue of the fact that they’ve given me new ways to think about things that were otherwise held in place. Hal 2 and the novel I’m currently writing might never have shaken out if it weren’t for those two books. That says something massive, given that I’m usually insanely hyper-critical about books on writing. I have even, let’s say, hypothetically, thrown them across rooms in disgust the way one might a Penguin Romance.
I am astonished and angered that it took that long to be pointed toward Block’s work in my life, and so I hope to rectify that with at least one of you. If not, if you’re all already reading the guy, you already know, huh? So go on. Git!