Hit Man by Lawrence Block


collection of linked short stories first published in book form 1998

this story:

Keller on Horseback



Hit Man


Keller ordered a Coors at the bar. On the jukebox, Barbara Mandrell sang a song about cheating. When she was done, a duo he didn’t recognize sang a song about cheating. Then came Hank Williams’s oldie, “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” A subtle pattern was beginning to emerge.

“I love this song,” the blonde said. A different blonde, not the perky young thing from the front desk. This woman was taller, older, and fuller-figured. She wore a skirt and a sort of cowgirl blouse with piping and embroidery on it.

“Old Hank,” Keller said, to say something.

“I’m June.”

“Call me Tex.”

“Tex!” Her laughter came in a sort of yelp. “When did anybody ever call you Tex, tell me that?”

“Well, nobody has,” he admitted, “but that’s not to say they never will.”

commentary: This might be the perfect short story. It is certainly the only one I have ever read that seems to be composed of equal parts Country & Western song and Greek tragedy: it embodies both of those genres.
Everything had happened exactly the way it had had to happen. Encountering June in the Meet ’n’ Cheat, running into Hobie at the Burnout Bar. He could no more have avoided those meetings than he could have kept himself from buying the paperback western novel that had set the tone for everything that followed.
Lawrence Block is a giant of crime-writing, he seems incapable of writing a bad book. I’m not usually a fan of short stories but this book could almost convert me. Keller, the protagonist, is a hit man: a paid professional killer who commits murders to order. By the end of the book I was half in love with him, and entirely forgiving of his minor sins, and  I was rooting for him throughout. That is quite an achievement…

The stories are also very funny:
There was a tavern across the street, a perfect vantage point, but one look inside made it clear to Keller that he couldn’t spend time there without calling attention to himself, not unless he first got rid of his tie and jacket and spent twenty minutes rolling around in the gutter.

“Keller, I’ve been keeping your secrets just about as long as you’ve had secrets to keep. And you’re asking me—”  
“I wasn’t exactly asking you. What do they call it when you don’t really expect an answer?"   
“Prayer,” she said.  
“Rhetorical,” he said.



The individual stories, which do definitely have an overall arc, appeared separately in magazines such as Playboy. The whole effect is of something much longer ago than 1998, partly because of the revolution in communications since they were first published: information is hard to come by, phone calls and messages are problematic, but on the other hand Keller can be off-grid, travelling around in the USA leaving no fingerprints (metaphoric or real) and paying cash while giving a false name.

But none of that matters. You can never tell where the stories are going: there might be a long disquisition on stamp-collecting (most informative), a quote from Dr Johnson, or a joke about corsets from Corsica. The stories enthralled me. Lawrence Block completely removed the disapproval I would certainly have for a contract killer in real life…

The Western shirts are from a Sears catalogue.
















Comments

  1. Yet another book I am going to have to read, Moira! I very much like the Matt Scudder books. Yes, a giant of crime-writing - and he also wrote some pretty good books on how to write.

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    1. Oh I didn't know about the how-to books. I do know that you recommended to me the last Block book I read, and I loved it, you mentioned it in a discussion of knockout endings. Out on the Cutting Edge.

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  2. Block really is so extremely talented, Moira. I'm not surprised you found this to be such an outstanding read. I like the way you describe it, too: part Greek tragedy and part Western. Yes, that's Block...

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    1. He is simultaneously funny, erudite and nourish - and that's quite a combination.

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  3. I have been planning to read this for a long time, now I really need to push it up on the list. (The problem is that there are so many on the list.)

    I found it interesting that he traveled at times off-grid. I just recently read one of the Lee Child books, and it implies that he lives like that. I had read the first one and did not remember that.

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    1. Yes, I'm not sure how well the off-grid thing would work in real life... but I like reading about it.
      I think of you as a Block fan, Tracy, so am proud I've read one that you haven't!

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  4. I love short stories but they usually need a really strong theme. I want them to shock me, surprise me and intrigue me. One of my favourite books of all time is Ghislain di Diesbach's The Toys of Princes, partly because I love the sheer over the top baroque quality and imagination in them, although I wonder whether if he wrote a longer length story it might not be too rich and overwhelming.

    Short story writing does seem to be rather an art. Saki did it so beautifully. I love a good horror/scary short story far more than I generally like a full length novel. I guess I just can't imagine not being a fan of short stories, but then again, I know there are so many forgettable/pointless feeling short stories out there.

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    1. I'd never heard of that author, but it sounds most intriguing, and am ordering the book...
      I suppose - there are plenty of short stories I have enjoyed, and Saki I love, and MR James, and others. But, if I pick up a book thinking it's a novel, and it's actually short stories -then I am always disappointed. Can't explain it, but that's the way it is...

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  5. I'm a big fan of Lawrence Block. I adored When the Sacred Ginmill Closes. Listening to the Dave van Ronk song that the line comes from (Last Call) gives both a resonance and pathos they have less of separately.

    I really like short stories, too. Recently finished Mollie Panter-Downes WWII short story collection that Persephone put out. Great stories from a master. So much power that novels don't often have. Like a hit to the solar plexus.

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    1. Some great recommendations coming on this one - I can see that I am going to be persuaded on the subject of short stories.
      When the Sacred Ginmill Closes is a great title...

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    2. Yes, I read the book based heavily on the title. The song is great, too, especially if you're a van Ronk fan, as I am.

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    3. I love the Keller stories and I recommend them to my friends who are contemplating retirement. Keller hires himself out as a hit man in order to fund his retirement and buy stamps for his collection. Also, for those who enjoy short stories; try Joyce Carol Oates.

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    4. Paula - I'm going to have to look out for book and song...

      Russell - thanks for commenting. I have been completely won over to the Keller books, and will look for more. I have dabbled in Joyce Carol Oates, and must try more!

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    5. Just going through my old records (I don't want to look like a hoarder to people after I die), I found my ticket stub from when I saw van Ronk with Joni Mitchell (after her FIRST album) at the Troubadour. Makes me feel so old.

      I went through a JCO phase decades ago, and, for some reason, I had a strong emotional reaction to them. I think it was after Wonderland I broke down and sobbed for about an hour. Gosh, but she's prolific!

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    6. That's a strong reaction to Oates! Not sure I could face that.
      Joni Mitchell though. There's a heroine for the ages.

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    7. Oh, it's probably just me, and where I was in life at the time. I haven't had a reaction like that to any of her books I've read more recently!

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    8. She's an author I really feel I should read more of.

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  6. I've read some of Block's Bernie Rhodenbarr (he's a burglar) stories but none of his Kellers. There does seem to be a separate genre of hit-man stories. Max Allan Collins QUARRY stories predate Block's character by some years, although the granddaddy of them all might be Frederick Forsyth's charming, unfeeling assassin in THE DAY OF THE JACKAL. Although he's not actually a hit-man, Horace Dorrington, the private detective created by Arthur Morrison back in 1897, will do anything in order to earn a dishonest buck, including theft, blackmail or murder. I suppose that the 'killer as hero' is part of the wider 'criminal as hero' genre. One of my favourites is Nick Velvet. Edward D Hoch's burglar for hire will steal anything, as long as it is something that doesn't have any obvious monetary worth or else is very bizarre. Thus he is hired to steal a roulette wheel out of a casino, a wind-up toy, a tea-bag or (one of my favourites) a swimming pool.

    ggary

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    1. Yet more great reco's, and those targets for theft are most intriguing. I do like a loveable villain.

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