The Burglar on the Prowl
by Lawrence Block
Published by William Morrow
293 pages, 2004
Gangsters, Swindlers, Killers, and Thieves: The Lives and Crimes of Fifty American Villains
edited by Lawrence Block
Published by Oxford University Press
304 pages, 2004
This interview with Lawrence Block is jinxed. It's gotta be -- after all, it started out more than a year ago, with a sit-down at Jerry's Famous Deli in Los Angeles' oh-so-trendy Westwood Village, but it wound up only a few minutes ago when I checked my e-mail. In between, there was a string of delays, postponements, blown deadlines, missed connections, bad timing and just plain bad luck.
As January Magazine's designated Block expert, it was my job to find out what was up with this four-time Edgar Award winner, five-time Shamus winner, Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America and arguably the best detective writer in the business right now. Our first meeting took place shortly after the publication of Small Town, Block's sweeping tale about an embattled New York City struggling to come to terms with the horrific events of September 11, 2001. The novel (one of January's favorite books of 2003) had been released to widespread acclaim, and forced readers -- even some of those who wouldn't normally gravitate toward crime fiction -- to recognize Block's versatility as an author. About time, I thought. After all, it had only taken him 25 years, more than 50 novels and well over 100 short stories to reach that point in his career.
Born in New York state in 1938, Block started out in the late 1950s and early 60s penning tales for post-pulp crime digests such as Guilty, Trapped and the legendary Manhunt, and writing paperback originals that ran the gamut from crime fiction to pornography, and back again. One of the earliest novels published under his own name, The Thief Who Couldn't Sleep (1966), introduced Evan Tanner, whose wound in Korea left him unable to sleep, so he took on part-time spy work. Tanner has continued to turn up in subsequent novels (the most recent being Tanner on Ice, 1998), but Block has several other popular series going as well. His "Burglar" books, which commenced with Burglars Can't Be Choosers (1977), feature New York used-books dealer and dry-witted thief Bernie Rhodenbarr, while his Keller series, so far limited to Hit Man (1998) and Hit List (2000), relates the quirky adventures of an oddly affable assassin, based in New York, who collects stamps in his spare time. None of these characters, though, has ever achieved quite the renown of another Block protagonist, Matthew Scudder, who first appeared, in the paperback original Sins of the Fathers (1976), as an alcoholic ex-cop trying to keep himself afloat as an unlicensed private eye. One of the most honored series in crime fiction, five of the 15 dark-veined Scudder books have won awards, with others being short-listed for commendations. (The most recent Scudder installment was 2001's Hope to Die.)
Block isn't a writer easily confined to one field or form, however. He's penned erotic novels (under a variety of monikers) and crime capers, edited anthologies of mystery stories and even compiled his advice on writing into several volumes.
But Small Town seemed to kick off an especially good year for Block (and his many fans), culminating in the just-in-time for last Christmas double-barrel paperback release of Small Town and Enough Rope, the latter being his whomping collection of short stories that stretched back an incredible four decades.
2004 looks to keep that momentum going. March saw the release of The Burglar on the Prowl, Block's 10th comic novel featuring Bernie Rhodenbarr, in which the housebreaker witnesses a woman's rape and murder in a Manhattan apartment he had just commenced robbing. Then, this month came the richly illustrated Gangsters, Swindlers, Killers, and Thieves: The Lives and Crimes of Fifty American Villains, which profiles the most infamous characters from U.S. history, including Jesse James, John Wilkes Booth, Pretty Boy Floyd, Dutch Schultz and stage-looting "PO8" Black Bart. By far the biggest news so far this year, though, was the announcement in January that the British Crime Writers' Association has selected Block to receive its prestigious Cartier Diamond Dagger Award for lifetime achievement.
When I caught up again with Mr. Block, this time by e-mail, he was riding high -- literally, "motorvating" an SUV on an around-the-States book tour. We found the opportunity to discuss his extensive literary oeuvre, his abiding affection for New York City, his recent dip into the world of graphic-novels and, um, his sordid past as an author of lesbian pulp fiction.
Kevin Burton Smith: Well. The Diamond Dagger. Must be quite a rush.
Lawrence Block: It is. Like I said in my newsletter, I think my shoes will last forever, because my feet haven't touched the ground since they told me.
The award is certainly well-deserved. Did you have any idea it was coming?
None at all -- it was a complete surprise, as they rarely give it to Americans. I'm only the third one to be so honored, after Ed McBain  and Sara Paretsky .
When will you actually see this Dagger before you?
May 12, at the Savoy Hotel in London.
I always seem to catch you out on the road somewhere, don't I? Where is this e-mail note finding you now?
In the middle of a two-month [U.S.] book tour that ends in mid-May, for The Burglar on the Prowl. Except for a quick week in Southern California, I'm doing the whole thing by car -- -SUV, actually, as I'll be bringing along some out-of-print and small-press books for sale. I'll be driving all over the country, or the eastern half of it, anyway -- St. Louis, Iowa, Alabama, and like that, relatively few really big cities. The tour began on publication day, March 16, and will run until the second week in May. It's an atypical tour, in that two-thirds of my appearances are at libraries, where I'll be giving a more formal presentation than I do at bookstores. We have over 40 libraries on board, and so far it's been fun. And then, as soon as the tour wraps up in May, [my wife] Lynne and I shall fly off to London for the Diamond Dagger presentation.
Let me just say that The Burglar on the Prowl's a great read, another mind-snapping mystery full of banter and coincidences. I'd forgotten how funny the Bernie Rhodenbarr books can be. Bernie's fans ought to eat this one up.
I hope so. Advance sales were good, and late orders pushed the book into a second printing before the first one even shipped.
I hear you've started a Web blog while you're on tour, just to keep fans posted.
Yes, it's my way to stay in touch with readers in a non-invasive sort of way, by dashing off a note to [publicist and Web maven] Maggie Griffin [to whom Prowl is dedicated] every night -- except when I forget, or turn sullen. She, in turn, will post it on a new page of my Web site.
It sounds like it could be fun.
Well, I'm not always sure I'll find things to say, but I figure the medium really is the message in this case, or at least until the novelty wears off. The idea of being out there, holed up in a new motel every night, and yet mysteriously linked to a web of readers -- hey, it's worth a shot. We'll take it a day at a time and see how it goes.
I hear you had a pretty good time writing this new "Burglar" book.
Yes, I wrote it last fall in Ragdale, a writers colony in Illinois. I had a marvelous time writing it, and I hope readers will [find it enjoyable], too. For years now, the one thing I've been able to count on at every signing or public appearance is questions from Bernie's fans, wanting to know when they can expect another book.
And Prowl isn't going to be the only novel featuring this book-selling sneak thief to come out this year, right?
No, it isn't. I don't know why, but the very first book in the series, Burglars Can't Be Choosers, has been out of print for years now. I finally managed to get the rights back, and Avon will be bringing it out in paperback around the same time as the new hardcover.
Meanwhile, I hear Small Town is still going strong.
Yes, it's been out in paperback for a few months now, and has been doing very well indeed. It turned up on a couple of bestseller lists, and I've had a lot of reader e-mail about it, which is always gratifying. There may even be a movie deal pending, and, while nothing's been signed yet, we've come to terms, and it looks good. An independent producer is optioning the book, and it looks as though I may even be writing the screenplay.
I read Small Town well over a year ago, and I was impressed by how it almost serves as an overview of your writing career. You managed to work into the story themes and characters -- or, more precisely, types of characters -- who have turned up throughout your novel-writing years.
I suppose in some ways, one always does [that].
But because you chose such a large canvas, you finally had the space to use them all at once. You've got your alcoholic private eye, your serial killers -- which you do so well -- your tortured writers, your sexy gallery owners ... At times it's Scudder's New York, at times it's Bernie's New York. I guess, really, they're all your New York. You've even tossed in a few scenes as a sort of nod to your early days, when you wrote some, uh, erotic novels. I'm sure there are some readers whose jaws are still bouncing on the floor like Ping-Pong balls after they encountered some of those sex scenes.
I figure they can deal with it. And some of them probably need [to]. In fact, Small Town's been very well received abroad -- with one interesting difference: no one across the pond took any exception to the book's erotic content. Over here, some readers were disturbed by that element. Make of that what you will.
So, where did the idea for Small Town come from? Was it really inspired by the horrors of 9/11? Or did you just feel it was about time to really "do" New York City?
Not exactly. About 10 years ago or so, I had the idea of writing a big New York book, a big multiple-viewpoint novel that covered it all. And then I came across a quotation from John Gunther -- a paean to New York, really -- that ends with the lines, "it stays up all night. But it becomes a small town when it rains."
You quote that at the beginning of Small Town.
Right. And so, I had a title for the book, but I didn't really start writing the book until August 2001. I had about 100 pages done by then, and the book was moving along. And then 9/11 happened, and well, I certainly didn't feel much like writing right then. I wasn't sure what to do with the book.
So did you scrap it, and start over?
I thought of that, but no, I printed out what I'd written, and re-read it. I liked it, and saw how it could be saved. I recast it and changed the timeframe, so that it took place not before, but after 9/11. And it became a very different story, and also a much bigger and darker story. I'm very, very pleased with the way it turned out. Immoderately pleased. A question I often get, and that a lot of writers get with some frequency, is, "Which is your own favorite of your books?" And the answer is almost always the one you're touring to promote.
Yeah, and what do they think you're going to say? "This one's not so hot, the last one was better"?
Exactly. "The one I wrote 15 years ago was my best book. Don't buy this one." But in this particular instance, I honestly think the answer to that particular question will still be Small Town several books from now.
Why is that?
Well, it's a very personal book, to me, and I think certainly a more ambitious book than any I'd previously written. ... [But] whether it's actually better or worse than my other books, I leave that to other people. It's not up to me to say.
Let's talk a little about New York itself, then. Bernie gets to prowl around Manhattan quite a bit in his latest adventure, and in another book, I forget which one, you said something to the effect that "That was the thing about New York -- if you loved it, if it worked for you, it ruined you for anyplace else in the world."
Right, that was in Small Town, actually.
All your series, in fact, are set in New York City.
Yes, Keller gets around, and Tanner gets around, but their home is New York. They always come back. And Bernie Rhodenbarr and Matt Scudder rarely leave the five boroughs.
Have you always lived in New York?
No, I grew up in upstate New York, in Buffalo. But I remember when I was 10 my father and I took the train to New York for a long weekend, and I probably fell in love with it then. As soon as I could, I moved here, and I've lived most of my adult life in New York. It's my town. Somehow New York energizes my work. I've lived other places, but I always come back, and at this point, I think I'd really be a fool to set my work anywhere else, never mind living anywhere else.
In many ways, I think New York has really always been a small town. The inter-relatedness of lives in New York is a constant, I think. For people who have lived there for a long time, it's always been perceived that way, as a collection of small towns and communities. One's neighborhood really is a small town. It's the same with various non-geographical communities, cultural communities.
That's actually one of the things I enjoy about your books, particularly those featuring Scudder -- that sense of overlapping communities. In the course of his investigations, he crosses all sorts of lines. But in the early books, back when he was drinking, Scudder's entire world, at least geographically, seemed to be about four blocks wide. Only as the series has progressed has his world expanded, to encompass all of New York. Now he takes these long rambling walks and revels in the history he sees. This is a trait he shares, for example, with Bernie, in The Burglar on the Prowl, and even the killer in Small Town -- he takes these long walks, too.
Well, I take long walks myself.
Which is why the books ring so true, I guess. It almost makes the reader feel like a native, the way you make New York City come alive. And you seem to show no sign of slowing down. Do you think you're becoming the "wordy old bastard" you worried about in your introduction to Enough Rope?
Certainly with Small Town I felt I had a bigger story to tell. But other than that, well, I guess it's possible. The books now seem to be a little longer than they used to be. I think my writing's better, but I'm not sure it's because they're longer. Perhaps they're longer because they're better.
Well, certainly the market seems to favor longer books these days.
Yes, but I tend to write what I want -- within reason. I do feel perhaps some of my books in the past were shorter than they should have been, and I was in too much of a rush to get them done.
Speaking of your sordid past, when I saw you at a Bouchercon 10 years or so ago, I asked you to sign a copy of The Case of the Pornographic Photos that was first published in 1961. It's recently been reissued as You Could Call It Murder. At the time, you were amazed that anyone had found a copy.
Ah, yes, the Roy Markham book. [Markham, starring Ray Milland] was an old television show [introduced in 1959] about a private eye/lawyer. That wasn't a novelization, you know, but an original story using characters from the show.
There's been quite a rush in the years since then to bring back into print a lot of your early work, including some of your "erotic novels." For instance, $20 Lust came out last year in a snazzy collector's edition, under the more respectable title of Cinderella Sims. Have all the books you will admit to writing now been reprinted?
I think so, yes ... although there are any number of them that probably neither I nor the world would be better served by seeing the light of day again. There are always a few people out there who apparently want everything.
How many of your old books do you figure are still lurking out there, out of print?
Honestly? I don't know. ... A lot of [other] people think they know, but they don't, because there were a lot of pen names I used back then that a lot of other people used as well. And I didn't really keep track.
So you were really cranking them out in your early days as an author?
There really aren't that many, but I was still learning back then -- it was a great training ground.
I did an article a few years ago about lesbian pulp fiction, and I was surprised to see your name come up, as well as Donald Westlake's and a few others.
Yes, I was on Terry Gross' program one time -- she hosts a weekday show [Fresh Air] on public radio -- and she was doing something on early lesbian fiction, and they found out I had done a few lesbian novels, so I was invited. And she turns to me, when we're off-air, and whispers off-mike, "But how did you do it?" And I replied, "Well, it seemed perfectly natural to me." And she said, "But you're not a lesbian!" and I said, "Well, but for an accident of birth ..."
You're extraordinarily prolific. Do you work on several projects simultaneously?
No, I tend to work on one thing at the most. That's usually enough. I do write a lot, but I don't write all the time. I like to take time off. That's just the way I am.
Is there anything you'd like to try writing, but haven't yet? Some fresh challenge?
Oh, there probably is. But I don't know what it is yet.
Do you know what you're going to write next?
I have some ideas, but I've learned not to say too much about that, because I often think I know what I'm going to write next, but then I may end up writing something entirely different. I know when I'm going to write something next, but I don't know what.
A few years ago, you put together a collection of short stories [Ehrengraf for the Defense, 1994] featuring Martin Ehrengraf, the dapper little lawyer who's never lost a case -- mostly because he will do anything to win one. But are you ever going to do a full-length Ehrengraf novel?
I doubt it. In fact, it's remarkable that I've been able to sustain him for as many short stories as I have. I really don't think a novel would be viable.
You've never thought of doing with him something on the order of what you've already done with the Keller books, a sort of series of interlocking short stories? Even the second Keller book, Hit List, which most people don't think of as anything but a novel -- some of those chapters were published originally as standalone stories.
Yes, but that was sort of after the fact. Hit List was written, front to back, as a novel. I don't think I could do it with Ehrengraf. It's a pretty frail premise.
Yeah, I guess, although I really get a kick out of those stories. It may be a one-joke premise, but it's a great joke.
Speaking of Keller, will we ever see him again?
Well, I suspect there will eventually be a third Keller book. After all, you need three books to make a trilogy. Two books would be ... well, a biology.
You were on a cruise to Tahiti last spring, and I hear you managed to get some writing done between snorkeling adventures.
Yes, in fact, I managed to write a Keller novella, for an all-star collection Evan Hunter [aka Ed McBain] has put together. Should be out in late 2004 or 05.
Man, you do get around. What's the latest count, as far as countries you've visited? I think the last time we talked, you were at about 120 or so.
One hundred and twenty-eight.
Let me ask you one more thing Matt Scudder. He's evolved so much over the years, and he seems to have aged in real time, which has made him a little more rooted in reality than some of your other series characters. He's also become, well, quite domesticated lately, particularly in Hope to Die. What's next for him, or are you going to let him slip quietly into retirement?
Well, see, that's something that I really enjoy about writing about Scudder -- I'm never quite certain what he's going to do next. And that appeals to me.
Of all your characters, which one do you think is closest to you?
I don't know. That's something you should probably ask someone else. I do know that [author] Peter Straub, after he read Hit Man, said that Keller reminded him of me more than any of my other characters.
It's probably true that, though they're all very different, there's something of you in each of your characters.
Yes, I would think so ... although Bernie's probably more honest than I am.
So what drew you to crime fiction in the first place?
I don't know. I read a great deal as a kid, including a fair amount of crime fiction. And I found I enjoyed writing it, too; I just seemed to have better ideas about crime stories. The first story I sold [to Manhunt magazine in 1957] was a crime story.
So, there but for a pay check, you might have ended up being a science-fiction writer?
No, that's the thing. The first year I started writing professionally, I actually wrote a science-fiction story and it wound up in a best-of-the-year collection. But remarkably, I never got another idea for a science-fiction story. I read a fair amount of it, and I know many science-fiction writers, and certainly respect them, but I can't seem to write it myself.
You've never woken up in the middle of the night and suddenly decided, "That's it. I want to write a fantasy novel or a western"?
No, not really.
You're just happy being a crime writer.
I don't even necessarily think of myself that way. I'm just happy with what I'm writing. I don't really think too far ahead, just the next book.
What do you enjoy most about the act of writing?
Probably just the pleasure of creation.
Do you work from an outline?
Not really. Early on, I tried it. But I haven't really outlined anything in, oh, 25 years or so. I wouldn't presume to tell someone that's how it should be done, though. I just know [that outlining] doesn't seem to work for me.
You were a columnist with Writer's Digest for years, and have written several books on the subject of writing [including Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, 1981]. And that's something I always liked about you: you say there is no right way, it's just whatever works.
Exactly. When the work is done, nobody really cares how it got there. It doesn't matter if it was labored over and took forever, or it flowed out of you like water from an open tap. It's what's on the page that matters.
Speaking of your non-fiction, you edited another new book, Gangsters, Swindlers, Killers, and Thieves: The Lives of Fifty American Villains. How'd that come about?
The idea actually originated with [editor] Anne Savarese, at Oxford University Press. All I had to do was select the 50 miscreants whose biographies appear in the book.
So you didn't actually write the biographies?
No, they were pulled from the pages of the American National Biography, but I wrote a page of introduction for each of them, and added an overall intro for the volume.
It must have been an enjoyable project for you. When I first heard about it, I immediately thought of Scudder, back in the day, carrying around The Lives of the Saints. Are you yourself a big fan of non-fiction books like that?
I am, actually. And I'm quite pleased with how [Gangsters, Swindlers] turned out. In fact, it's just out this month, and while every effort was made to contact stores and libraries where I'll be appearing, so that the book would be available, I brought along a couple of cartons from [Oxford University Press] and added them to the SUV's burden, just in case.
I understand that you've also written an introduction to Gotham Central, coming out in May from DC Comics. It's a graphic novel about the Gotham City police working a case without Batman's help. Another change of pace. What got you involved in that project?
Someone at DC Comics invited me to do it. A graphic novel doesn't need much in the way of introduction, so I didn't comment on the material, but wrote an essay on Gotham-as-New York.
Do you read many comics? Or, have you ever been approached to script one, or have your work adapted to that form?
I'm not much of a reader of comics; I'm a lot more verbal than visual. But that doesn't mean I don't respect the medium. I wouldn't want to try scripting one. However, even as we speak, some folks in California are working on a Tanner graphic novel. So we'll see how that goes.
Well, we're about done here. Any parting revelations?
Oh, like what?
I dunno. Do you kill people in your spare time?
No, not yet.
Or have a secret life as a game-show host?
[Laughs] Like Chuck Barris? No, but I read his book, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, when it came out, oh, it must be 20 years ago. It was interesting, that's for sure, but it's difficult to know for certain if he was telling the truth.
Maybe Keller will read it, and decide on a new career in television.
You never know. I don't know what I'll write next, so it's hard to know what might come along and catch my interest at some later date.
Any final thoughts on your Diamond Dagger?
I realize I don't deserve all this attention, but then I didn't deserve cataracts, either, so what the hell. | May 2004
Kevin Burton Smith is a January Magazine contributing editor and a columnist for Mystery Scene. He's also the editor/creator of The Thrilling Detective Web Site. A Montrealer by birth and inclination, he's now stationed in California, where he's discovering that failure to possess a driver's license may be grounds for deportation.