Cult Beat: Hit Man by Lawrence Block
Everyone remember Cult Beat? The column that covers…anyone, anyone? Yes, it’s literature with a cult following. Check out how we make that call.
If you had a medical problem, the treatment you got depended on the sort of person you went to. You didn’t expect a surgeon to manipulate your spine, or prescribe herbs and enemas, or kneel down and pray with you. Whatever the problem was, the first thing the surgeon would do was look around for something to cut. That’s how he’d been trained, that’s how he saw the world, that’s what he did.
Keller, too, was predisposed to a surgical approach. While others might push counseling or 12-step programs, Keller reached for a scalpel.
What’s It About?
Keller is your average, single lonely New Yorker. He lives in a decent apartment, goes to a shrink, and eats too much takeout. He’s devoted to his dog and good at his job.
Which happens to be killing people.
Why Is It Cult?
Hit Man is the work of Lawrence Block. Block, for those of you unfamiliar with his work, has been writing crime novels since the 1950s, and at seventy-three, recently started a blog. After the deaths of Mickey Spillane, Ed McBain, and Donald Westlake, he is arguably the last living and working writer of true American crime pulp. His last book A Drop Of The Hard Stuff came out just a few months ago.
Like Westlake, Block has spent most of his career alternating between a series of stark hard-boiled crime novels and a series of lighter crime-based farces. But Keller–the mild-mannered killer at the center of Block’s late-career Hit Man series–has arguably eclipsed both of them, turning into Block’s most popular and famous creation.
Where Does It Come From?
In between turns on his two main series—The Scudder novels, which follow the gritty stories of an alcoholic ex-cop who works as an unlicensed PI in Hell’s Kitchen and The Bernie Rhodenbarr books, a comedic and occasionally meta series about the capers of a gentleman thief and his “lesbian soul mate”—Block began writing his Keller stories as a series of short, interlinking stories that appeared in various anthologies before beginning a run in Playboy.
How Does It Hold Up?
Quite well. Miles away from Block’s usual two-fisted style, these minimalistic, sardonic stories of death-dealing are enough to satisfy the most hard-boiled crime fiction fan and those who never touch the stuff.
The trick to the story is how completely Block subverts not just the dominant archetype of the hit man, but any archetype of the hit man. Keller is neither a stone-cold, existential icon of cool, à la Alain Delon, nor is he a besotted innocent like Jean Reno or a romantic badass à la Chow Yun Fat. He does not develop a convenient conscience for the big third-act shootout. He’s just an ordinary, dreamy, not-that-bright guy who is good at his job and doesn’t lose too much sleep over it one way or the other. He’s mild mannered to the point of being milquetoast, ordinary to the point of being banal. And he kills an awful lot of people.
The murders actually become part of the joke, written so unluridly and with such little emphasis, tucked away in unassuming paragraphs that a skimming reader might miss them. They’re just part of the scenery, as subdued and low-key as the descriptions of what Keller eats for breakfast, or the depictions of the dating scene for the lonely, middle-aged hit man.
The book is vignette-based, almost more a collection of short stories than a novel. Block added only very minor cosmetic surgery to make the isolated short stories a whole. Yet this too works in the story’s favor as Keller’s cases go off with the efficiency of the magazine trained, aided by Block’s clipped cool prose. It is–if you’ll excuse the phrase–all killer, no filler.
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