Friday, December 6, 2013

TIME MARCHES ON. . .IN PLACE by Lawrence Block

 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?”
“A mystery.”
“Any good?”
“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.”
“Sometimes the same woman.”
“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.”
—Lawrence Block

LawrenceBlock’s new book, to be published on Christmas Day, is the eleventh book about Bernie Rhodenbarr, THE BURGLAR WHO COUNTED THE SPOONS. You can read more about Mr. Block at his website and his blog, fan him on Facebook, and follow him on Twitter as @lawrenceblock.


  1. A new Bernie Rhodenbarr book? Wohoo! What a great Christmas treat! Pre-ordering now . . . .

  2. The master visits Jungle Red. Wow! Keep them coming Mr. Block.

  3. I just keep coming back to the fact that I just LOVE the cover of the new book. So fresh yet so iconic.

    I shall be reading the book soon for review. Can't wait. It's going to be a special treat.

    Thanks for visiting JRW's Mr. Block.

  4. A new Bernie Rhodenbarr -- WOOT WOOT! Dying to know what Bernie was reading. Great cover.

    We are so thrilled to have you on Jungle Red, Mr. Block! Only wishing Barnegat Books really existed so we could all pay him a visit... the world indeed has become an "infernal place" for independent bookstores that were once pockmarked Manhattan.

    I've got HIT ME in my TBR pile... and looking forward to revisiting Keller the killer over the holidays.

  5. Fabulous post - and hard evidence of why Mr. Block's books are such engaging page-turners. I wanted this piece to go on and develop into a mystery :) Can't wait to read the new book!

  6. Wow, what a great post, and welcome to Jungle Red, Mr. Block.

    I think the aging of characters versus real time is something we all battle with. Maybe it's a Dorian Grey thing.. we'd like to stay the same age as our characters.,

  7. This is usually an informal kind of place here at JRW, everyone on a first-name basis, but you're "Mr. Block," Mr. Block. What's it like to be literary royalty, Lawrence? :-)

    I haven't read your Rhodenbarr series yet. I'm in for a treat--I get to start with number 1!

  8. Just in case some of you readers wonder if the authors you admire have fangirl moments, too, let me recreate the moment when I met Mr. Block in person at the Nero Awards:

    Me: (thinking) Just shake his hand, tell him how much you've loved his books over the years, and thank him for writing TELLING LIES FOR FUN AND PROFIT. Let him know that was your "mystery writing course." And that you recommend it to all your students. Oh! And that you love his old single title stuff as well as the series. And SMALL TOWN. And ENOUGH ROPE. All his short story collections, really.

    Lawrence Block: Hi. Congratulations on the Nero.

    Me: Unh! Ergh! Mr. Block! *splutter* *bleurgh* *flail*

  9. That is too funny, Julia!

    I had a similar fangirl moment with Tess Gerritsen at Bouchercon this year. My problem was that I chattered on a bit much and she (gracious as she is) had to find a way to politely extricate herself from me. :-)

  10. Can I just say, "Welcome, Larry?" if you'll forgive the impertinence... We are so tickled to have you on Jungle Red today!

    Can't wait to read the new Bernie, and LOVED the post. And I thought I had problems with my series characters not aging in real time.... But I'm glad that neither yours nor mine do. If only we could say the same...

  11. There you go again, entertaining us effortlessly. You really have no shame. Please, never get any shame.

  12. So I've been going around all day telling everyone "Lawrence Block is on Jungle Red! Lawrence Block is on Jungle Red!!"

    One of my favorite quotes from "Telling Lies for Fun and Profit" from which I take solace --
    "Frequently I find myself convinced that all I'm doing is turning perfectly good bond paper into garbage. Sometimes I'm right. Sometimes it's an illusion. When I feel this way, it's impossible to tell which will turn out to be right." (1981)

  13. Seriously, I just stood up at my desk and applauded. SO lovely to see you here..and what a treat to read this!

    AH..going back to read again. ANd that's what ALWAYS happens with a Block!

  14. Hurray! A new Bernie Rhodenbarr! And Lawrence Block visiting the Reds!

    You taught me how to write with your books and even earlier your column in Writer's Digest. It feels funny to call you Mr. Block because I fell as if I've known you forever.