JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: The hard part about introducing Lawrence Block is a) keeping it short and b) not sounding too much like a fawning obituary. Take the list of his honors; they start with Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America, pass through four (each) Edgar and Shamus awards, run through another half-dozen countries' prizes and scoop up almost every other recognition given to crime fiction, up to and probably including a blue ribbon at the Iowa State Fair.
Mr. Block has written over a hundred books, innumerable short stories, and the best guides ever for writers, Telling Lies for Fun and Profit and The Liar's Bible. He's created some of the most memorable sleuths and anti-heros in crime fiction: recovering alcoholic and PI Matthew Scudder, the stamp-collecting hit man John Keller, crazily adventurous Evan Tanner, who never sleeps, and The Burger Whom We'd All Like To Meet, Bernie Rhodenbarr.
So I walked over to Barnegat Books, on the uptown side of East Eleventh Street between University place and Broadway, to see how my old friend Bernie Rhodenbarr was getting along. A little bell sounded when I opened the door, and he looked up from his perch behind the counter, even as his cat eyed me from its usual spot in the window.
“Oh, it’s you,” he said. “For a moment I thought it might be a customer.”
“I might buy something,” I pointed out. “It could happen.”
“Pigs could fly,” he said. “You never buy anything. I’m not even sure you can read.”
“I can,” I said, “but thank God I don’t have to. You, on the other hand, have always got your nose in a book. What’s that?”
He held up a book but he lowered it before I could read the author’s name. All I got was a flash of the title.
“Something about flesh,” I said. “Something naughty?”
“I’m just getting into it,” he said. “It won a couple of awards. The Nero, the Gumshoe.”
“Is it part of a series?”
“Of course,” he said. “Everything’s part of a series, as you should know better than most. How many series have you had a hand in, anyway?”
“Well, let me see. Scudder, Keller, Ehrengraf, Tanner, Chip Harrison.” I was ticking them off on my fingers, and evidently ticking him off while I was at it, because he made one of those throat-clearing sounds, which I could render as harrumph or ahem, if I had a mind to.
“And yourself,” I said. “And then there’s The Specialists, which was a one-book series, but never mind.”
“I never do.”
“Here’s what I don’t get,” I said. “You’ve been playing yourself since 1977, and somehow you never change. I’m 36 years older now than when I first started chronicling your adventures.”
“That’s your mistake,” he said. “You’ve been aging in real time. I, on the other hand, have had the good sense to remain the same.”
“I don’t know how you do it,” I said, “but you’re one lucky guy.”
He shrugged. “It’s not all good,” he said.
“I stay the same,” he said, “while the world changes around me. Now it’s a world of security cameras and electronic locks, a hell of a place for a gentleman burglar. It’s also a world of eBooks and the internet, which makes it an even more infernal place for a bookseller. Yet here I am, trying to make a go of it in two dying trades.”
“If you had a son—”
“How could I have a son? I can get away with staying the same unspecified ageforever, but how could I doom a child to that sort of existence? And if I didn’t, before I knew it he’d be older than his father.” He frowned. “Look what happened to Tanner.”
“Last I looked,” I said, “he was doing fine.”
“He spent twenty-eight years chilling out in a froze-food locker in Union City, New Jersey,” he reminded me. “He’d been aging in real time, but he came out of there the same age he started. So he’s a Korean war vet, but physically he’s a good thirty years younger.”
I smiled. “It worked out rather well,” I said.
“But did it? He brought home this little Lithuanian girl and raised her as his daughter. And now they’re both the same age. That’s got to be confusing.”
“On the other hand,” he said, “look what you’ve done with Matt Scudder. You’ve been writing about him as long as you’ve been writing about me, and the poor bastard’s got to be 75 by now.”
“That does sound old,” I admitted.
“Damn right it’s old. I’m surprised he’s still living at the Parc Vendome. He ought to be in Florida by now, resting up between shuffleboard tournaments. Not leaping tall buildings in a single bound.”
“He was never much for leaping,” I said, “but I take your point. But he never had much choice, you know. His series is too realistic for time to stand still. It’s not just a matter age, you know. He’s influenced by the experiences he undergoes. He’s changed by the events in his life, and he evolves, even as—”
“Well, I was going to say ‘even as you and I.’” I said. “But that’s the thing, isn’t it? Because you’re not.”
He sighed. “Too true,” he agreed. “I never learn. Neither does Carolyn. We both sail through life, having a lot of neat lunches together, and embarking on doomed love affairs with inappropriate women.”
“That only happened once,” he said, “and I’d just as soon not talk about it. We keep on keeping on, and if you wanted to you could say our lives are pointless, but so what?”
I didn’t have an answer for that. I turned instead and looked over at the window, where the cat looked to the left, then to the right, then to the left again, as if he had become a spectator at an invisible tennis match.
“Raffles looks good,” I said.
“You think? I’d say he looks the same.”
“How long have you had him?”
“It’s getting on for twenty years,” he said. “But he doesn’t age, either. So get used to it.”
“Hey,” I said. “I’m trying.”