Lawrence Block,
Small Town
(HarperTorch, 2003)

I propose that this is Lawrence Block's masterpiece. I say that with having only read about 12 of his books. I liked every single one of them, but then I am a big fan of the kind of fiction he writes.

You know what to expect of Block's books.

With the Scudder novels, in the background it's all about the consumption of nonconsumption of alcohol. In the early novels, he's always drinking. In the later ones, he constantly attends AA meetings. These are definitely recommended for the recovering among us.

As for Keller, the affable hit man, it's a meditation on murder as a profession. He's a nice guy who likes spicy food and falls in love with every town he visits to kill someone and ends up thinking about living there. The writing is extremely terse, like, "He killed him with a heavy lamp. Then he rolled him up in a rug." He always has iced tea with Dot, his "appointments" secretary. Each hit is an ethical dilemma. They talk it over.

I haven't read any of the Bernie novels. When I want "funny" crime fiction, I go to James Crumley and Donald Westlake.

Some of Block's best early stuff is being republished by Hard Case Crime. See especially Lucky at Cards.

Small Town is a paean to post 9/11 New York. It is also a celebration of kinky sex as well as a police procedural about the hunt for a serial killer unhinged by family loss during 9/11. Oh, and it's a peek into New York's literary scene, a portrait of the Chelsea neighborhood and a tender portrait of NYC's gay life. The quickly sketched evocation of the bouncer at a leather bar called Death Row will stick with you. (I'm straight, by the way.)

Some highlights:

• The dialogue among the four gay guys at the scene of a bombed-out gay bar is nailed perfectly.
• The first sex scene between John and Susan ... this is love incarnate, but in a very unconventional way.
• Susan and her female, uh, associates, Chloe and the piercer lady. Hot!
• New York, of course. North and south, left and right, up and down.

I understand that some may be disturbed that Susan and her story is in this book. I recall reading in the Village Voice some years back about the phenomenon called "terror sex." Essentially, it said, the Twin Towers attack turned New Yorkers into rabbits. I think it's no coincidence that a key plot element is the carved turquoise rabbit.

Speaking of rabbits, how did that rabbit get into John's sock drawer? And what does it mean? Well some mysteries....

Be prepared. This is a slow-moving, very deliberate novel that runs to well over 500 pages, but the climax is a nail-biter. You have to be patient. There's lots of character development, background story and lengthy dialogue. Some of the dialogue goes on for two or three pages.

It's not typical Block, but it rewards the patient.

review by
Dave Sturm

17 April 2010

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