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01-13-12: Hard Case Subterranean Block

Not from Bob's Basement Tapes

The combination almost sounds like the title of an unreleased Bob Dylan song. And it does reach back in the 60's, but instead of "folk-rock," think mystery sleaze. To be honest, the latter is much more my style.

When I was a kid — a voracious reader, but not yet a teenager — I used to haunt the local liquor stores and the covers of books like 'Strange Embrace' and '69 Barrow Street' were a strong and undeniable lure. The days of those charmingly sleazy books, written by those with true talent, are not past, by any means.

But the memories are strong enough to inspire Hard Case Crime to team up with Subterranean Press for an absolutely stunning hardcover re-issue of two super-duper sleazefests in the beloved "Ace Double" format. Lawrence Block is the stuff of literary legend now, a mystery writer who claims to be retired while working harder than the girls in a Madonna video.

Back in the sixties, he cranked out novels for Nightstand and Bedstand Books at a rate that is positively mind-boggling. And here in the 21st century, yesterday's sleaze is today's classic. What you have here are two lurid tales of lesbianism from the time when it was the stuff of lurid tales, not heartwarming fare on the Lifetime channel.

'69 Barrow Street' is the earliest of the two, one of many written by Block as "Sheldon Lord." It chronicles the perils of Ralph Lambert, resident of the provocatively numbered 69 Barrow Street, because, "Everything happens in Greenwich Village." He's a painter who meets his match in his nasty neighbor, Stella. "Ralph's painting attempted to capture the full character of Stella on canvas and succeeded admirably. Evil oozed forth from every dab of paint on the canvas. The smile on Stella's face was Satanic. There was cruelty shining forth from her eyes, cruelty in the lines at the corners of her mouth."

Yes, she's pretty bad, for both the men and women who come into her orbit. A new girl, Susan, moves in and Ralph battles with Stella for her ... affections. It doesn't end well, except for those of us who enjoy Block's crisp prose, and one sleazy scene after another, from orgies to S&M; material that's still not tame. Block writes with gusto, and offers enough details that are not salacious to create a vivid scene, man.

The flip side of '69' is of course, uh ... more 69, in this case, 'Strange Embrace,' a 1962 title written under the pseudonym Ben Christopher. Block wrote the book as a tie-in for a TV series named Johnny Midnight that lasted exactly one season. Block chose the pseudonym because his buddy, Donald Westlake, had used to write a tie in for 77 Sunset Strip, a show I used to watch at my Grandma Kleffel's house when we went there for Saturday night dinners. 'Strange Embrace' also works the lesbian underworld, this time in a play where one of the cast may be a murderer.

'Strange Embrace' is one of Block's earliest detective novels, and that gives it a raw energy that works in its favor. There's more mystery and less sex, which may or may not improve the mix for readers. It depends on your tastes, which, if you're reading this book, are to be polite, eclectic.

But there is something to be said for readers who like to look into a writer's early work, and especially work for hire of this sort. When writers work outside the edges of what is currently socially acceptable, they have a freedom that might not otherwise be present. An OK to be bad is an opportunity to speak with complete freedom.

Hard Case Crime and Subterranean Press have gone all out on this double. The new art is by Robert McGinnis and it is superbly sleazy; gorgeous and evocative. Publishing a hardcover version of the old Ace Double format is gutsy, but ultimately very cool. And at $30, the price is great as well. Here are two books in one volume that are well worth reading and a hoot to own. These books put their goods on display right there on the covers; twice, in case you missed it the first time, either now or back then.

01-10-12: Archive Review: Terry D'Auray Catches Lawrence Block and 'The Burglar on the Prowl'

"A show well worth the price of a ticket."

Editor's note: We're looking back on this review in order to be more fully informed when we look both forward and even farther back tomorrow.

Wm. Morrow includes a list of Lawrence Block's other novels in the front of his latest "burglar" book; the list fits on a single page only because it's printed in the same small type most often used only for "fine print" contractual details no one wants you to see. Fifteen Matt Scudder novels, masterful, old-school hardboiled detective stories; eight Evan Tanner sleepless spy stories; four Chip Harrison books, Block's ode to Rex Stout and Nero Wolfe; a couple of Keller heartless hit man novels; and numerous other novels, short story collections, anthologies, and how-to books for writers. Oh, and ten, "the burglar who" books, featuring literate looter Bernie Rhodenbarr. The burglar books are Block at play — playing with language, plot, character and credibility in the story telling and playing with the world in general — political, social and literary — in the wonderfully rambling stream of consciousness asides that are themselves worth the price of admission.

If you've never read a burglar book, a little background is in order. Bernie Rhodenbarr is an antiquarian book dealer by day and a burglar by night. He's a man of exceptional taste, erudite, literate, sociable, voluble and exceptionally witty. Thievery is both his innate natural gift and the provider of his adrenaline-fueled natural highs. Burglary is a pastime he pursues with grand skill and only modest regret. "The fact that I evidently can't give it up doesn't mean I'm not well aware of the disagreeably sordid nature of what I do". Well, sordid maybe, but disagreeable, never. Bernie's thefts invariably lead him into unanticipated situations in which he must either solve a crime to save his ass, or solve a crime to put some other bigger, badder ass out of circulation. While Bernie's a criminal, he's not stealing purses from little old ladies. He filches from felons, or felons-in-waiting, and if, as occasionally happens, he makes a mistake and steals something from someone who ultimately doesn't deserve to have it stolen, well, he just puts it back.

In 'The Burglar on the Prowl', Bernie is asked by his old friend Marty Gilman to steal cash from the safe of a New York plastic surgeon, Crandall Roundtree Mapes, most often referred to as That Shitheel. The motive for Gilman's request is simple. That Shitheel has swiped his mistress and sweet revenge is the only salve. Just before taking care of the Shitheel break-in, Bernie, inexplicably antsy, goes on the prowl, breaking into the apartment of a female NY attorney who's awkwardly in the midst of a date rape. Bernie's awkwardly hiding under the bed for that event, and after the rapist leaves, he carefully replaces everything he's just stolen (except for a bit of cash), figuring the woman's had enough bad luck for one night. Block, making liberal use of the "long arm of coincidence", weaves roofies (the date rape drug), Latvia, the Black Scourge of Riga, NY mobsters, LBD (lesbian bed death), cops and other (non-Rhodenbarr) robbers into a wildly implausible and utterly delightful romp.

Block surrounds Bernie with a lively cast of recurring supporting characters; Caroline the loquacious lesbian dog-groomer and Bernie's best friend; Ray Kirshmann, the donut-snarfing not-so-dumb cop, and Raffles, his bookstore's Manx. And as with his other burglar stories, Block gives the reader not only the crime and its solution, but also an extra-credit smorgasbord of cleverly written riffs on this and that. A little history (Latvia's quest for independence), a little architecture (New York's brownstones), a little geography (the Bronx versus Manhattan), riffs on burglary and riffs on riffs themselves. All that, plus the always amusing and eagerly anticipated spoof of another contemporary mystery writer. Here, John Sanford's the target, with his new novel about a guy killing vegetarians called 'Lettuce Prey'. Every story is thickly infused with New York since Block's Rhodenbarr delights in the offbeat nooks and crannies ("or crannies and nooks") of New York, the city's eccentric characters, its subways, take-out deli's and bars.

Block's burglar books zip along with great humor, clever language ("as felonious as a monk") and wild doings wittily described. He writes playful, engaging and enjoyable stories of absolutely no significance, literary or otherwise, whatsoever. But they're frolicking good fun. Lawrence Block at play is a show well worth the price of a ticket.

01-09-12: John Lescroart Unleashes 'The Hunter'

Detective as Mystery

Give readers clean prose and a simple situation, set up a plot that will pull them in; it all seems so easy to read that one might well conclude it's easy to write. The mystery genre is a good place to begin comfortably, and 'The Hunter' by John Lescroart offers a supple, smart set-up that reads so easily, it seems like the good times will never end. Things don't stay simple or easy, but for readers the good times don't end until the book itself does. If you're lucky, you'll not have read anything else by Lescroart and find yourself with a big back catalogue of great reading in store.

The opening is pitch perfect. We meet Wyatt Hunt and Devin Juhle having the lunch special at Lou The Greek's. Hunt runs "The Hunt Club," a collection of folks who form something pretty close to a detective agency, and he's trying to cajole Juhle to quit his job at the SFPD and join him. Lescroart's prose and scene-setting sensibility immediately immerse us in the lives of these likable men. A few pages later, Lescroart upends everything when Hunt receives a text on his cell phone: How did your mother die?

'The Hunter' is the third in a new series of novels by Lescroart featuring Wyatt Hunt, but it works perfectly as introduction to Lescroart's San Francisco milieu. Hunt is an adoptee who never knew his biological mother or father, so the question is pertinent, even though his adoptive parents were supportive, smart and loving. As more text messages arrive, Hunt delves deeper into his own past, and this well-adjusted, pretty good guy starts to come unraveled. Lescroart expertly cranks up the tension and depth of characterization as murders in the past reach into the present.

Lescroart's prose expertly and effortlessly carries the reader along. He has a great sense of scene, and explores Hunt's hometown of SF with contagious enthusiasm. When he strikes out on the road, whether Hunt's in the mid-west or another country, he knows how to create a landscape that is solid and vibrant. He's equally adept at investigating Hunt's inner battle with the same sense of clarity and wit. The transparency of Lescroart's prose is a primary pleasure in this novel.

The driver here, however, is the battle within Wyatt Hunt, and his reactions to his own past as he finds out what happened to his biological mother and father. A man who might otherwise be a bit on the shallow side is pulled apart by his own work. His success as an investigator is his undoing as a man who knows who he is and where he came from. Those around him are cautiously supportive, their reactions sympathetic but a bit wary. Juhle and his partners in the police department toe the line of unusual believability, actually paying attention to evidence that points away from Hunt's line of investigation, only paying attention when it makes sense. Cops — and murderers behaving sensibly are a strong point in this compelling mystery.

Lescroart backs all this up with a wonderfully-layered plot. As Hunt investigates his past, he finds ties to the Jonestown suicides that lead him to Indiana and Jim Jones' unpleasant beginnings as a pastor. 'The Hunt' offers readers a very satisfying plot that reaches from the past into the present and keeps the suspense high while turning Hunt into a complex and compelling character. Most enjoyably, it manages all this with a sense of ease. Lescroart balances his dark subjects and detailed backstory with a breezy style that's engaging and understated.

'The Hunter' is a fascinating novel in a variety of levels. First and foremost, it's just fun to read, period. You can tell Lescroart is having a ball. But he does more than comfort reading, he makes the novel pithy and interesting as he addresses adult adoptees coming to terms with their pasts, as well as the historical crime background. Great characters, transparent prose and smart, suspenseful plotting combine in 'The Hunter' to remind readers exactly what it that makes the mystery genre so darned comforting. It's not that crimes get solved, or even that characters find themselves in a complicated world. What makes 'The Hunter' and the mystery genre so comforting is the fact that here we see language and storytelling polished to a very human level of imperfection.

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