I don’t use the word ‘Legend’ lightly, but my guest today easily falls into that category and he’s probably one of the interviews I’ve been the most excited to share with you guys. I’m talking, of course, about Mr. Lawrence Block…a staple in the mystery and crime fiction genre for more than fifty years. He’s received some of the most prestigious awards and honors available in the business, but you wouldn’t know it by how humble and congenial he is.
I first discovered Mr. Block way back in the late 80s or early 90s. Sometime around my senior year of high school and into my college days, I picked up a little paperback book with a ‘Burglar’ in the title. I can’t even remember which book it was. But it introduced me to the character of Bernie Rhodenbarr, the gentleman burglar who always seemed to find trouble when on the job…usually in the form of a dead body and the cops blaming him for the death. That’s when Bernie would have to put on his detective hat and solve the crime. And wow…some of these crimes were deviously cunning.
Bernie has stuck with me all these years. I recently started re-reading the series from book one and they’re even more entertaining now that I’m older and wiser. I can’t recommend them enough.
Of course, Bernie Rhodenbarr isn’t the only amazing series within Mr. Block’s catalog. Oh, no. Every series he’s ever written are fantastic in their own right. You have P.I. Matthew Scudder, who’s drinking problems and hard-knock life gives an extra bit of kick to his solving crimes. You have Keller, a hitman with a penchant for self-reflection. Evan Tanner, the treasure hunter/thief who can’t sleep because of brain damage suffered after an explosion. The list goes on and on.
As you can tell…I’m a huge fan. So you can imagine my absolute excitement when Mr. Block agreed to take a little time and answer a few questions I had about his books, mysteries/crime fiction in general, and everything in between. Yeah…HUGELY (is that a word?) excited! So take a look and be sure and grab some great Lawrence Block books afterwards. You’ll thank me later.
1) You are such a prolific author and have written so many great mysteries and crime fiction, it’s hard to know which book or series to begin, so let’s start with a general question about the genre itself. Recently, I wrote a blog post discussing the rather confusing way in which publishers and bookstores categorize books within the mystery and crime fiction genre. Confusing in that they tend to lump it all together in one big category. I’m curious. Do you believe there’s a difference between ‘mystery’ and ‘crime fiction’? Are there specific criteria for a mystery that isn’t found in a regular crime novel? If so, what would those criteria be?
I suspect precise categories are of more use to booksellers than to writers. It tells them what shelves to put the books on. As a writer, I don’t really give the matter much thought. Mystery and crime novel are used pretty much interchangeably, though they both may mean different things to different people.
Otto Penzler has this definition of a mystery: “Any work of fiction in which a crime or the threat of a crime is integral to the plot.”
I’ve been reissuing all my early work, and it’s sometimes not easy to decide if a particular title belongs in my Classic Crime Library or my Collection of Classic Erotica. Both Candy and Four Lives at the Crossroads are indisputably crime fiction, but they had a lot of erotic content, especially for their time.
2) As I told you earlier, the Bernie Rhodenbarr series has been a favorite of minesince I was a teenager back in the 80s. His character ranks up there with Remo Williams (I’ve talked often about on my blog quite a bit in the past) as far as being one of the most fun characters to read. He’s charming. Honest…for a thief. A lady’s man. And sophisticated. Not to mention witty and smart. The first book in the series, Burglars Can’t Be Choosers, was first published in 1977. His most recent adventure, The Burglar Who Counted Spoons, was released in 2013. He’s had a long and successful run of misadventures. He’s still hugely popular…which is interesting given what he does for a living. What do you think it is about Bernie that is so appealing to readers?
Beats me. I’ve written eleven books about him because I enjoy his fictional company and enjoy seeing and reporting the world through his eyes. I would suspect the equivalent is true of the readers.
Incidentally, a private eye of my acquaintance was a huge fan of the Matthew Scudder books but refused to read about Bernie. “The guy’s a criminal,” he said. “I don’t want to read books where the hero is a criminal.”
3) Staying on Bernie for one more question, these books are what I consider to betrue mysteries. Meaning, they are classic whodunits for the most part, and quite honestly, excellently plotted. But they’re also rather ‘manly’ when you get down to the brass tacks of things. When I look at the mystery shelves of bookstores today, I notice something I don’t quite understand. Most modern whodunit mysteries are considered ‘cozy mysteries’ and consist mostly of cat sleuths, baker detectives, and Ms. Marple-esque grandmothers who like to knit and can peaches when they’re not solving mysteries. These books, by and large, are marketed toward women. Very few of these books are geared toward men these days (plenty of crime thrillers for men, sure…but not whodunits). Would you consider this a true statement? If so, why do you think publishers aren’t focusing their efforts to supply men with just as good mystery fiction as they focus on women? Does the typical man just not like a mystery? Should there be more of an emphasis made on mystery books targeted at men?
Are there really no hardboiled whodunits? No puzzle mysteries, certainly, because hardboiled requires a level of realism incompatible with an elaborate puzzle plot. But I don’t have to look further than my own Matthew Scudder books to find novels in which the protagonist, a detective, goes about investigating and interviewing witnesses and unraveling a crime. Not all the Scudder books fit this description, A Ticket to the Boneyard has relatively little detection in it, but with most of the others we’re listening to Scudder tell us what happened and how he solved a case.
4) As mentioned before, you are very prolific with several series (Matthew Scudder, Bernie Rhodenbarr, Keller the Hitman, Evan Tanner, etc). Most of these series, the books can be read in any order. So, if you could choose just one book from each of your series for a new-to-you reader to try, what would they be?
Interesting question. I often recommend that readers start the Scudder series with Book 6, When the Sacred Ginmill Closes; it’s a flashback book to Scudder’s drinking days, and is to my mind a much stronger book than Book 1, The Sins of the Fathers. Similarly, I can see arguments for starting Bernie Rhodenbarr with Book 3, The Burglar who Liked to Quote Kipling, because that book introduces Carolyn and has Bernie running his bookstore. Keller’s saga is best read in order, starting with Hit Man, and The Thief who Couldn’t Sleep is similarly the best place to begin with Tanner.
5) A lot of time, I’ll ask an author I interview about their favorite books, but your own website has a fantastic section dedicated to just that. So that led me to wondering the next question I usually ask: influences. My own influences are well-known. Warren Murphy. Jim Butcher. Jeremy Robinson. And, you. So, I’m very curious if you, who are an inspiration and role model to so many aspiring writers out there, have anyone who influences you. Historic influences? Maybe any modern ones?
I suppose I’ve been influenced to one degree or another by everything I read before I began writing. That would include most of the important American writers of the first half of the 20th century, and it would also include more than a few crime writers. But I’m not inclined to think in terms of influences. Jazz musicians will talk freely about the musicians who influenced them, but they start out trying to sound like artists whom they admire. Writers, it seems to me, are more preoccupied with finding their own individual voices.
6) As much as I love Bernie Rhodenbarr, I won’t ask if you have plans for a new mystery with him any time soon (though I’m crossing my fingers). I will ask, however, if you have anything in the pipeline and if you could share a little about it with us?
I’m not sure what the future holds—that, after all, is what distinguishes it from the past and the present. But I’d be surprised if it holds much in the way of novels of mine. It seems to me I’m old enough and have written enough so that retirement will be sufficiently guilt-free; I suspect, too, that I lack the energy and imagination that used to fuel my fiction. Lately I’ve been editing anthologies, and I’ll probably go on doing that until I tire of it. And I may write the occasional short story. But my guess is that I’m essentially done with fiction.
7) Finally, besides your crime novels, mysteries, and mid-century erotica (many of which are being re-released by Hard Case Crime press), you’ve also written several non-fiction books centered around helping authors write. Traditionally, I ask the same question on #7 every time: If you could offer only one piece of advice to aspiring writers out there, what would it be?
That’s easy. Write to please yourself.
Thank you once again, Mr. Block, for your thoughtful and insightful answers. I truly appreciate you taking time to do this for me.
As to my friends and readers, I encourage you…do yourself a favor and find a Lawrence Block book today and start reading. I love the Bernie Rhodenbarr series primarily for its wit, humor, and crackling good puzzle mysteries. You might prefer some of his other, more serious entries into crime fiction. I just encourage you to give one of his books a try. I promise…you won’t regret it.
You can find out more about Mr. Block at his website HERE.
Or find his books at his Amazon author page HERE.