Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Hit Man: Lawrence Block

Hit Man is not a novel but a series of connected stories about an assassin named Keller. He lives in an apartment in New York City and leads a (mostly) normal life, except that the way he supports himself is by killing people. It was a very enjoyable read but it is an adjustment to get used to a killer being the main focus, without any retribution in the end.

I have read several books about hitmen in the last year: Hit Man and Hit List by Block, The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter by Malcolm Mackay, and The Butcher's Boy by Thomas Perry. As far as the subject matter, a man who kills for a living, this one was a more challenging read in some ways because it is so matter of fact. In all ways, Keller seems like a really nice guy. Normal except that he doesn't have a standard job. He isn't nasty, mean or a thug, although he is somewhat of a loner.

These stories do take the reader on the road with Keller to his assignments, but they do not focus very much on the actual act itself. The stories are still more about Keller, the people he runs into, his experiences. Keller is a likable person and it isn't that he is trying to fool others into liking him. He just doesn't have any issues with taking money to kill a person and once he has the contract, his main goal is to get the job done, within the specifications of the contract. So he may be nice in his everyday life, but he has picked a profession that is not nice at all.

In some ways I compare this to spies and their assignments. In spy fiction, often the spy is called upon to kill an innocent person just because it is better for the agency he works for, and thus, supposedly, better for the country he works for. The immorality of spies and their methods is not taken for granted, but often forgiven for the greater good. I am not sure that there is much difference between hitmen and spies who are willing to kill for the job.

Lawrence Block is a very gifted writer to convince us that Keller is worth reading about, when each story takes us back, even if only briefly, to the planning and execution of a crime. Dot is the only other character in this book who has a continuing role. Keller gets his assignments from a man in White Plains, and Dot is the go-between. We don't get close to Dot but they have some interesting conversations.

I like the view of New York that we get in these stories. Keller lives in New York City, but visits many other parts of the US. Most (all?) of Lawrence Block's series are set in New York, and he has edited two of books of short stories set in New York (Manhattan Noir and Manhattan Noir 2: The Classics). But I also like Keller's comments on the places he visits. In the first story, his assignment is in Oregon, a small town near to Portland; in the second one it is in Colorado, near to Denver.

Towards the end of this book, one of the stories ("Keller in Retirement") deals with Keller's new found passion – stamp collecting. I learned a lot about stamp collecting from this story, and I assume the information is accurate since the author is also a stamp collector. This hobby continues to be mentioned in stories about Keller.

I cannot forget to mention the humor. The stories are not laugh-out-loud funny, but are filled with low-key humor. Even though I am sure I will continue to find it a challenge to read about a killer for hire, these books are pleasant and fun.

In the Acknowledgments at the beginning of the book, Block says...
Grateful acknowledgment is also due to those publications in which some of Keller's adventures appeared in a slightly different form: Murder on the Run, a collection of stories by members of the Adams Round Table; Murder Is My Business, an anthology edited by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins; and, of course, Playboy.
It is amazing to me that Block could pull together those stories and make them into a book that holds together so well, and provides a broad picture of Keller and the stage he is at in his life and career.

I would not recommend this book and the later books in the series to everyone, but I will say that if you haven't read anything by Lawrence Block, you should try one of his books. There is the very humorous Burglar series and the serious and dark Matt Scudder series, and more, to choose from.

Also see...


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Publisher:  Avon Twilight, 1999 (orig. publ. 1998).
Length:      309 pages
Format:      Paperback
Series:       Keller, #1
Setting:      USA, New York City and various states
Genre:       Linked short stories
Source:      I purchased my copy.

17 comments:

  1. I love the sound of this and want to read it after reading your excellent review. I have a couple of his 'Burglar' books on my tbr pile so must get to them. I read a book of short stories last year (I forget which) but there was one by him in it and it was by far the best of the bunch.

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    1. Definitely try the Burglar books if you have some, Cath. I hope you like them. I read some of them years ago, and then the first one more recently, and have others in the series I want to read.

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  3. I'm glad you found so much to like about these stories, Tracy. I couldn't agree more about Block's talent. And his work is frequently really witty. I remember thinking when I read about this on Col's blog that I ought to try this. I just may...

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    1. Hope you do try this sometime, Margot, I would love to know how you liked it.

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  4. Sounds quite interesting Tracy...yet another to add to the TBR stack

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    1. Glad you liked the sound of this, June, and I hope you try it.

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  5. I haven't read any of Block's fiction in years, but did enjoy, more recently The Crime of Our Lives, reminiscences of his colleagues and friends in the crime fiction world. He's a fine writer with a wry sense of humor, and, now that you mention it, Tracy, time to revisit his work.

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    1. I have read parts of The Crime of Our Lives and enjoyed it very much. Block appreciates Rex Stout, and I like that. I still have a lot of his books to read, can't remember which ones I read when I was younger. I liked Hit Man and Hit List even more than I thought I would.

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  6. I've tried but can never get into this author's books. I am especially not keen on what I call 'happy hitman' books. Nor, for that matter, books about happy thieves and other miscreants. Just not for me.

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    1. I can understand that, Yvette. They are definitely not for everyone.

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  7. I'm a fan of this author and enjoy the Keller series. Kudos to the author for making Keller have some redemptive qualities even while giving him a profession that is on the wrong side of the moral scale. I find the stamp collecting fun but many fans decry the inclusion of his hobby in the series. He's had more hits than misses for me with his Keller short stories. I've went on and tried one Matthew Scudder book in that series and enjoyed it: When the Sacred Ginmill Closes - which stands alone well. He's been self-publishing his works now which is great and I'm always looking for another Keller short story. Great review, Tracy. --Keishon

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    1. Glad to hear you enjoy this series, Keishon. I have the third book already and will read the others also. I have seen the later Keller novellas on Kindle and I will look into those later. I keep meaning to read more in the Matthew Scudder series.

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  8. Tracy, I'm glad you enjoyed this one and cheers for linking. I need to get back to the other full length books in the series - maybe later this year.

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    1. I have read two Keller books now, three to go and then I will find more stories. They go so fast.

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  9. Thanks for the shoutout, and I did enjoy these as you know. I like your moral comparison with spy novels.

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    1. I enjoy the Keller stories also, Moira, and will read them all, yet I still have problems with the idea of the protagonist's amoral values. I do like the conversations he has with himself about his life and his choices.

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