Lawrence Block Essay - Critical Essays


Lawrence Block is one of the most versatile talents in the mystery field. His desire to entertain his readers is evident in the many categories of mystery fiction that he has mastered. With each subgenre, Block utilizes a fresh approach to the protagonists, the plots, and the tone and avoids relying on established formulas.

With Evan Tanner, introduced in The Thief Who Couldn’t Sleep (1966), Block created an agent who, faced with the prospect of rotting away in a foreign jail, reluctantly accepts his new career. While most private detectives are former police officers, thus having the proper knowledge and experience for their new professions, Chip Harrison’s previous employment in a bordello offered no formal training for working for Leo Haig. Bernie Rhodenbarr, the polished and sophisticated amateur sleuth, is actually a burglar for hire. With the character of Matthew Scudder, Block destroys the cliché of the hard-drinking private detective by making Scudder an alcoholic who wrestles with the demons of his past.

Block is a master at creating the right tone for each series of mysteries. The Tanner novels are laced with wisecracks and screwball characters. The Rhodenbarr novels not only are full of lighthearted comedy but also contain fascinating burglar lore such as how to deal with locks, alarms, and watchdogs. With his two Chip Harrison mysteries, Make Out with Murder (1974) and The Topless Tulip Caper (1975), Block’s sense of humor is fully developed. (Two earlier Chip Harrison novels are actually erotica rather than mysteries.) The nineteen-year-old private eye’s adventures with Haig are full of mystery in-jokes and puns. In the short story “Death of the Mallory Queen,” Chip and Haig encounter a suspect named Lotte Benzler, which is clearly a play on the name Otto Penzler, the well-known mystery bookstore owner, authority, and critic.

Chip’s tales parody the tough, hard-boiled detective stories, but they are also Block’s tribute to Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe-Archie Goodwin legacy. In sharp contrast, though, are the novels featuring Matt Scudder. The stark, unsentimental prose lends these books a serious, somber tone, as glib dialogue and flowery metaphors would only ruin the effect for which Block strives: to allow his readers to enter the mind of a man who is haunted by his guilt.

What Block’s characters have most in common is that they are outsiders to the world in which they live. Walking the thin line between law and lawlessness, these men disregard the conforming demands of a complacent society. Bernie Rhodenbarr, for example, as a thief and an amateur sleuth, is a descendant of the outlaw of the Wild West or the gangster of the Roaring Twenties, both elevated to the status of folk heroes by the early dime novels and pulps. Bernie is able to beat the system and get away with it. When someone needs something stolen, Bernie is more than happy to oblige—for a price. His profession satisfies a secret desire that must be common to many readers, that of wanting something more exciting than the usual nine-to-five routine. Bernie is not, however, a completely amoral character. There are times when he does feel some guilt for his stealing, but as he says, “I’m a thief and I have to steal. I just plain love it.”

The Burglar in the Closet

Bernie’s illegal excursions into other people’s homes, however, often lead him into trouble. In The Burglar in the Closet (1978), before he can finish robbing the apartment that belongs to his dentist’s former wife, the woman comes home with a new lover. Trapped in her bedroom closet, Bernie must wait during their lovemaking and hope they fall asleep so that he can safely escape. The woman is later murdered, and Bernie must discover who killed her to keep himself from being accused of the crime. As amateur sleuth, Bernie holds the advantage of not belonging to an official police force and is therefore not hampered by rules and procedures. With Bernie, Block adds a new twist on the role of the detective. Instead of being on a quest for justice or trying to make sense of the crimes of others, Bernie is motivated by more self-centered feelings. Like Philip Marlowe, Lew Archer, and a host of other detectives, Bernie is an outsider to the world through which he must travel on his investigation, but he is motivated by his need to save his own neck.

The Sins of the Fathers

Perhaps the most complex and believable of Block’s series characters is Matthew Scudder, the alcoholic private detective who is introduced in The Sins of the Fathers (1976). Scudder is a former police officer who abandoned his roles as law enforcement officer, husband, and father after an incident that shattered his world. While in a bar one night after work, he witnessed two punks rob and kill the bartender. Scudder followed the two and shot them both, killing one and wounding the other. One of Scudder’s bullets, however, ricocheted...

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