Monday, April 16, 2018

7. Hit List by Lawrence Block

I had actually read Hit List many years (decades, actually) ago as well as its predecessor Hit Man.  That was back when we were way into Richard Stark/Donald Westlake and one of my fellow Stark fans discovered the Keller books.  Block was a close friend of Westlake.  They played in a regular poker group and discussed and shared writing ideas.  You can see it in the style of Hit List, though very hard to tell how much of that is just that both of them were deep New Yorkers from that time period.  Much of Hit List's style comes from the very New York City quirks of Keller.  I'm rambling but my point here is that there may be a tendency to feel that Hit List derives a bit from Westlake's Dortmunder/Parker novels but given that I haven't read anything else by Block, I suspect that is not fair and that Westlake probably was influenced just as much by Block's style.  Block may have actually been a better seller than Westlake in his lifetime.

Keller is a professional hit man who behaves and thinks about his job the way a garbageman or accountant might think about his.  He is concerned about doing his job correctly and some elements of it are unpleasant but there are various ways to deal with them to help you get by.  He has a broker/boss named Dot who lives upstate and finds him jobs.  Hit List begins like a series of short stories, with each assignment being a story.  As it moves forward, we begin to see longer narrative arcs: his relationship with Dot, his relationship with a few civilians and the possibility of another hitman who is eliminating other hit men to limit the competition.  There is also underneath it a very slight shadow of Keller struggling with his conscience, especially when Dot pressures him to eliminate any "loose ends" which may include a woman he had been seing.

It's all very banal and normalized.  Keller collects stamps.  He frets about taking first class and enjoys local cuisine.  Each assignment has an interesting wrinkle, some of which are quite enjoyable to read in a dark way.

I suspect that part of the charm of Hit List is lost today, when assassination and killing have been portrayed in such over-the-top cartoony ways in popular media.  When Hit List was published in 2000, we still didn't have headshot ballets like John Wick 2.  Despite its impact being somewhat lessened, I would classify the two Keller books as a must-read for anybody interested in the hit man genre and an enjoyable read for fans of crime in general.


Book Glutton said...

It might sound strange but I always consider Lawrence Block comfort reading. Even if the books, in this case, the Keller series, are about a hitman. I enjoyed the first two Kellers and have the others on standby. I am not a fan of hitman lit but I made an exception for these and am glad that I did. And I know exactly what you mean about the New York City quirks of these stories.

Coincidentally, last week I happened to be reading the third Bernie Rhodenbarr book, The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling, and in it Block has some nice passages praising the Parker novels. (If you haven't familiar with them, Bernie, the titular burglar, has become a rare bookseller. In this one he's reading a Parker novel under the counter so his customers won't see it.) I avoided this series for a long time because I thought they sounded dumb but they really are quite enjoyable books.

OlmanFeelyus said...

Argh, apologies for replying so late. Blogger really does not do a good job of alerting me about comments. Thanks for the tip on the Bernie Rhodenbarr series. I'll keep an eye out.
I can very much see how Lawrence Block would be comfort reading. He has a style of writing that is engaging and competent that flows quite easily.