Lawrence Block is the grand master of crime, mystery and suspense novels. He has written over 100 novels and scores of short stories. He has a career that stretches back over half a century. Tripwire sent Peter Mann and Joel Meadows to interview the man himself, to find out what makes him tick
TW: In the mid-1970s you published two novels Make Out With Murder (a.k.a. The Five Little Rich Girls) (1974), The Topless Tulip Caper (1975) that repurposed your earlier hero Chip Harrison into the sidekick of Leo Haig, a fat detective who raises tropical fish instead of orchids in his Manhattan brownstone. Haig, who seems to be a pastiche of Nero Wolfe, resurfaced in As Dark as Christmas Gets, a short story in the late 1990s. I assume from this that you are an admirer of the late Rex Stout?
LAWRENCE BLOCK: Yes, very much so. It’s a conceit of Haig’s that Wolfe really exists, and that Rex Stout, which would translate as “corpulent king”, is a rather transparent pseudonym. Make Out With Murder was dedicated “to Rex Stout, whoever he may be,” if I remember correctly. His biographer, John McAleer, told me Stout was not amused by the books, but how could he be? Nobody’s ever amused, or in any way favourably impressed, by parodies or pastiches of his work.
TW: Is there any chance we may see another Leo Haig novel?
LB: While I won’t say never, I’ll say it’s more likely you’ll see the sun come up in the west.
TW: What do you feel about Robert Goldsborough’s continuation of the Wolfe novels, and would you want another writer to continue your novels?
LB:I read two early on and didn’t care for them. I gather he’s improved some, and makes a good job of writing like Stout. But, you see, there’s the thing in a nutshell; Stout didn’t try to write like Stout. I’d prefer not having anybody mucking about with my characters after I’m gone, but when I’m gone it’ll no longer be any of my business. And, in the unlikely event that there’s an afterlife, I can’t imagine it’ll involve my caring much one way or the other.
TW: There is often a vein of humour throughout even your darkest work. The Bernie Rhodenbarr “burglar” novels are your most obviously humorous writing. Does humour provide you with a balance to the darker work? British crime author Christopher Fowler uses dark and light in his novels for contrast and do they serve the same purpose for yourself?
LB: Perhaps, but then again perhaps not. What readers rarely realise is that the subjective experience of writing a book is largely unrelated to whether it’s light or dark. My concerns are how to make a scene work, how to work out what happens next, etc. My mood during the course of the writing continges more on how well the work’s going, not on how good a time my protagonist is having.
TW: I am a particular fan of the Hit Man books, where you manage to create a protagonist who is a hired killer and yet there is something very human about him. What is it about the dark side of humanity that appeals to you as a writer?
LB: I’ve never thought of the Keller books as particularly dark. I know they seem to constitute a Guilty Pleasure for many of my readers, who can’t help liking Keller enormously in spite of the fact that it’s killing people that puts bread on his table and stamps in his albums. When my mother read Hit List in manuscript, she said, “I was worried about what was going to happen to Keller, and then I asked myself, why the hell should I care? But I did.”
TW: A Walk Among the Tombstones was recently adapted into a film starring Liam Neeson. Did you feel that Liam got Matthew Scudder right?
LB: Absolutely. When he was cast, I knew he’d be brilliant in the role, and he exceeded my high expectations. That he’s a superb actor goes without saying, but watching him one’s aware of an inner life. And he has a special magnetism that can’t be taught or learned; watching the dailies, I saw one scene out of context in which the camera tracks him from across the street while he just walks, en route from one place to another. And he holds your eyes throughout. You have to look at him.
TW: There is talk about the Scudder books being a franchise for Liam Neeson, in the same way that the Taken films are. How do you feel about that?
LB: I’d love it if it happened. At the moment it seems unlikely, as A Walk Among the Tombstones didn’t do the domestic box office required to greenlight a sequel. But I know that both writer-director Scott Frank and Liam Neeson would like to do it again, so I suppose there’s hope.
TW: At the moment there seems to be a renaissance of crime fiction on TV – Ray Donovan, True Detective, Justified. Firstly, do you watch it, and secondly what of your work could you see being adapted for TV?
LB: I watch a fair amount of crime fiction on TV—Ray Donovan, Justified, Elementary, True Detective, Scott & Bailey, and a couple of other UK shows. Of my own work, I’ve always felt that Keller would lend himself to series television; in fact, although a few years ago I wrote a script for a theatrical feature based on Hit Man, I’ve always felt the character belongs on the tube. At the moment there’s a decent possibility that this will actually happen, but I’ll not say more about it until there’s more to say. Similarly, an early book of mine, The Specialists, is being pitched as a cable series, where I think it would work quite nicely. And again, it’s too early to know if anything will actually come to pass.
TW: You are a master of the short story. Do you feel that writing short stories is in some ways a helpful apprenticeship for writing novels? (What I’m thinking of here is the dearth of places to sell short stories.) I’m personally interested in whether writing is getting worse – and I really do think it is – because there is nowhere to “learn the craft” as it were.
LB: If writing’s getting worse—and it’s certainly possible—I can think of other more persuasive reasons to explain it. I’m enough of a crank to argue that people wrote better English when they’d studied Latin in high school. Now it’s a rare school where the language is taught. Beyond that, I think the fact that the past two generations of secondary school English teachers are themselves ill-schooled in grammar has effectively made it impossible for many young people to know how to write a sentence. (Obviously some of them teach themselves, and wind up very good at it, but they’re exceptions.)
But back to short stories. I wrote a great many of them before I attempted a novel, and there’s a great advantage in being able to fail repeatedly in a 4000-word increments rather than write an entire 60,000-word failure. And in fact I published most of those early stories, and the encouragement of so doing helped keep me going.
TW: What do you think about Elmore Leonard’s rules for writing? Should they be strongly adhered to or just used as a guide?
LB: I did get a copy of his book on the subject, a gift from the publisher, but I didn’t get all that far with it. I think it’s a fine book of rules on how to write a novel like Elmore Leonard, and I guess writing it gave Dutch a chance to sound off, but I found it silly, even as I found a fair amount of Stephen King’s book on writing to be silly. Any and all “rules” for writing are a good bet to be silly. Many decades ago the very distinguished members of the Detection Club, comprising at the time most of the UK’s leading mystery writers, compiled and broadcast their list of rules, and in short order the incomparable Craig Rice wrote a book in which she systematically and gleefully broke every single one of their bloody rules—and to good effect.
I’ve written several instructional books for writers—too many, I suspect—and if any rules have crept in, it’s been through oversight on my part. I wouldn’t presume to lay down rules, or to tell anybody how to write.
TW: With the passing of Leonard last year, arguably you are the last of the old guard of crime writers. How safe is the future and legacy of quality crime writers in the hands of writers who are the generation after you and those who are even younger?
LB: Oh, I suspect the genre will get along just fine.
TW: What’s on your reading list currently?
LB: I don’t read very much these days. Part of it’s age, parts of it’s having written and read so much over so many years. Right now I’m reading, albeit slowly, Gail Levin’s masterful biography of the artist Edward Hopper.
TW: Who do you admire as a writer?
LB: To varying degrees, everyone who manages to do it and keep at it. Especially those who realize that the important thing is the work itself, not what it gets you or who does or doesn’t like it.
TW: If you had to give a writer one piece of advice, what would it be?
LB: “Write to please yourself.”
The Burglar Who Counted The Spoons (Bernie Rhodenbarr 11) A Walk Among The Tombstones Time To Murder And Create (Matthew Scudder Mysteries Series Book 2) Hit Me When The Sacred Ginmill Closes (Matthew Scudder Mysteries Series Book 6) In the Midst of Death (Matthew Scudder Mysteries Series Book 3)