Published by William Morrow
296 pages, 2000
Buy it online
Reviewed by Linda L. Richards
There's something decidedly creepy about Hit List, the second Lawrence Block novel featuring John Keller. It's not, of course, the writing that is creepy. Block is in fine form for Hit List and the book is testimony that writers can keep on developing their muscles -- working up new ways of telling a story, creating fresh characters in new situations -- deep into their career.
And it isn't John Keller himself that brings the creepy effect. Keller is, all things considered, a pretty decent guy when he's not on the job. He's a passionate stamp collector who likes art and dogs and who shows up for jury duty when he's called. He lives in Manhattan and, when packages of approval stamps come from dealers all over the country, he goes through the stamps in a couple of days, selects the ones he wants and returns the ones he doesn't along with a check for those he's selected and a handwritten note for the dealer.
What's difficult to reconcile is what Keller does for a living. He's a hit man. Less euphemistically: he kills people for money. Disinclined to mess in his own backyard, he usually gets on a plane, locates the designated target, does his homework, "closes the sale" and flies home again. And if there's a bit of a lag between the doneness of the deed and the departure time of his jet, he and his well worn stamp catalog will visit the stamp stores in whatever city he's in to see if he can improve his collection.
While neither Hit List or the Keller novel that preceded it, Hit Man are strictly about killing, we watch while our man dispatches a fair number of people. He does this dispassionately, even professionally, but he always does it. Keller knows that there are people who share his profession that take an unseemly amount of enjoyment from their work. Keller feels they are beneath contempt and he shares none of their enthusiasm. But he will, on a client's orders, make a hit look like a suicide, or an accident, or a big, splashy mess. It's custom work and he does it well.
Keller isn't fiction's first hit man, or even the first hit protagonist, but he is the first I've encountered who is unregretful, unremorseful and not in some aspect of reform. Keller thought briefly about retiring before he started collecting stamps, but now he doesn't: there are simply too many stamps left to buy. It all makes for an odd dichotomy within the Keller novels. As readers, we're conditioned to like a novel's protagonists. More: we're conditioned to bond with them, to a certain extent. We are, after all, seeing the world through their eyes. And, as mentioned earlier, in almost all respects, Keller is a pretty stand up guy so he's not that hard to like. There's even something vaguely goofy and endearing in his intense introspection: it gives him a vulnerability. On the other hand, here he is in Lexington plotting the apparent suicide of someone who appears to be a devoted family man. It even seems likely to Keller that the man's wife or children will find the body when the sale is closed. And here he is in Boston and Keller suspects -- but doesn't know for sure -- that the hit is an environmentalist who has gotten in the way of a particularly zealous developer.
There is nothing voyeuristic in Block's handling of Keller's work. The writing in these segments is as dispassionate as the character. A certain professional pride in the work, maybe. But nothing more than would be evidenced by an ace plumber or a good surgeon:
The shower was running and Thurnauer was... adjusting his hairpiece, when Keller got a hand over his mouth and plunged the letter opener into his back, fitting it deftly between two ribs and driving it home into his heart. The big man had no time to struggle; by the time he knew what was happening, it had already happened. His body convulsed once, then went slack, and Keller lowered him to the floor.
This same hit has a complication: a girlfriend that the client has indicated they have no interest in one way or the other. Keller decides to take no chances:
So, when she stepped out of the bathroom, he took her from behind and broke her neck. He left her where she fell, just as he'd left Thurnauer on the bedroom floor. You could try to set a scene, make it look as though she had stabbed him and then broke her neck in a fall, but it would never fool anybody, so why bother? The client had merely stipulated that the man be dead, and that's what Keller had delivered.
And this is the creepy part: watching an act that, perhaps more than any other, shouldn't be watched. More: feeling sympathy for Keller when he meets resistance and obstacles. Remember: it's our conditioning and Keller is our protagonist. Still. It's an odd feeling and Block, a writer's writer, understands that conditioning and manipulates it every way imaginable. Let's face it: there's a reason this author is a Mystery Writers of America Grand Master and why most of his 50-plus books have taken turns outselling each other. He knows about story. He knows about characterization. And he knows about conditioning.
Hit List is not, however, unrelenting murder and mayhem. A lot of the time Keller is just doing his life: bantering with his agent, Dot; occasionally meeting women; thinking about buying art or stamps and getting his star chart written.
The conflict in Hit Man comes in the form of an unseen but acknowledged rival hit man who is hitting his competitors in order to thin out the field. He's done a pretty good job so far -- after all, what hit man expects a hit on him? -- and now he's targeting Keller. "It's an investment," Dot says as they attempt to figure out why this mystery hitter might have started gunning for Keller. "Long term. Keller, why does Coke go after Pepsi? He's killing off the competition."
Hit List isn't high art and occasionally it's even a bit uncomfortable. But it's classic Block: the story is tight, the characters are well drawn and believable and the conclusion satisfies. Grand Master Block hits another target. | November 2000
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.