The below interview initially appeared on Do The Math and is reprinted with the permission of Ethan Iverson.
I met Lawrence and Lynne Block through the late Donald E. Westlake. When Larry agreed to talk to me for DTM, I was a bit stumped. He’s been interviewed so much: what new questions could I possibly ask him? Finally I hit on the idea of a “blindfold test.”
Go here to see what I gave Larry. If you are an avid fan you should try to guess these dozen authors yourself.
In the unlikely event you’ve never read Block, I suggest When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, the perfect introduction to Matt Scudder.
(Last warning! To take the test without seeing the answers first, go here.)
Ethan Iverson: In jazz, we do this thing called the blindfold test, where you listen to a record with a great musician and the musician discusses what they think about it without knowing who it is. A lot of the time, of course, it is just a way to get him to talk about someone obvious like John Coltrane or Louis Armstrong. It is not usually designed to trick the listener…
I decided to select only from dead writers so that, you know, you’re not going to say anything bad about any living friends.
Lawrence Block: That’s true. Or, God forbid, say anything good about a living person.
EI: And I also decided to use only the beginnings of books, more or less in chronological order. So, here you go, chapter one.
[LB reads book one]
LB: Ok, I don’t know how to respond.
EI: Did you enjoy it?
LB: Yeah. I enjoyed it well enough, I was of course trying to figure out if I had any sense of who the writer might be, but the blindfold was effective in this case.
EI: I’ll tell you who it is and we can talk about it. It’s Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
LB: Which I’ve read long, long ago, but I didn’t remember the opening at all.
EI: I was sort of wondering what you — as one of the quintessential noir writers — what your relationship was to Christie and the English cozy tradition.
LB: I admire Christie tremendously, and I’ve read most of her work and have read more than once the Jane Marple books, which the Carolyn character in this is somewhat reminiscent of. (I would’ve looked far brighter if I had pointed that out a moment ago.) But I think that Christie was extraordinary in several respects.
There were a couple of books she wrote that became the first and last word on the subject. For example, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Once she’d done that, no one could ever do it again, and no one had done it before. And the same thing with And Then There Were None, or Ten Little Indians, what everyone calls it. These were extraordinary accomplishments. I’ve also heard it said—I don’t know if this is true or not—but that on at least two occasions, Christie published a book which immediately caused one or more writers to throw out a book in progress because she had gotten there first and it was something you could only do once. So she was quite brilliant that way.
But it also seems to me that—although the books are cozies and not to be taken as realistic in the same way that say, oh, realistic crime novels are—the books on one level are very serious. Christie was very much writing about evil and the nature of it, and the human capacity for it. So that she was, I think, a very tough-minded writer for all that she’s writing what we’re calling cozies.
EI: I think that’s right. Great.
LB: The Marple books I find re-readable. Hercule Poirot I never found that intriguing, somehow, he was an interesting vehicle for the telling of various tales, but Marple and her milieu I found interesting enough so I could re-read those books.
EI: There’s a nice book of Marple short stories. The puzzle plot really is the thing in Christie, so you get a bunch of them in a book, which is very enjoyable.
I think all her books are still in print, basically, at this point.
LB: Yes, very much so. I’ve always found it interesting that the first book, I believe, was The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which was the introduction of Poirot, and that was in, if I remember correctly, 1926, and he was elderly retired Belgian detective who went on solving things for another 50 years. It illustrates that, really, if one wants to keep a character the same age forever, readers certainly don’t give a damn.
EI: Is it sort of interesting to look at it without knowing who it is?
LB: Yes, it is.
[LB reads book two, SOME BURIED CAESAR by Rex Stout]
LB: Oh, I know what that is. This isn’t Some Buried Caesar, is it?
EI: It is.
LB: I thought it might be. I’m a big fan of Rex and I’ve read the entire oeuvre several times through.
EI: Sure, and you’ve even written a small series of pastiches.
LB: Well, yes, the latter two books—the Chip Harrison books. The first two, of course, are sort of young man coming of age novels, and the only way they could be a series was if he changed somewhat, because you couldn’t have the same person coming of age forever. So, I put him to work for a Nero Wolfe wannabe and that was fun. But again, it was essentially a one trick pony, and two books and a couple of short stories was plenty.
EI: One thing I notice about the Stout books is a precise use of language, even to the point that they’ll argue about what a word means. Of course, Wolfe is always right, but Archie will be in there, maybe commenting about a word or using a word incorrectly. And the first paragraph that Wolfe is speaking in this excerpt, he is using language in this very particular way. It reminds me of the way Keller talks to himself or the way he talks to Dot, where you talk about the art of words and wordplay a bit.
LB: Perhaps. I suppose it’s also true to a degree in Bernie/Carolyn conversations. The characters are interested in language to that extent.
EI: When did you first read Nero Wolfe?
EI: As a teenager?
LB: Probably one or two then but more later on in my twenties. And I also tried to read a couple of Stout’s non-Nero Wolfe books—I don’t know if you’ve done so yourself—and I found I didn’t like them at all.
LB: He wrote a couple about a character named Tecumseh Fox and I gather he thought higher of one of the Tecumseh Fox books than he did of any Nero Wolfe. But he was alone in this opinion as far as I can tell, nobody else felt that way!
The thing with the Nero Wolfe books is not that the stories are wonderful. There’s nothing much to them, mostly. The deduction is often arbitrary and not too much worth paying attention to, really, and for all that we’re given to understand that Wolfe has this astonishing brain, it’s not entirely in evidence during the story, and none of this would happen except that Saul Panzer or somebody can miraculously go and turn up with information that is not revealed to us.
EI: It’s almost the diametric opposite of a Christie book where the plot is really the thing.
LB: Yeah, and the Nero Wolfe books work in spite of the fact that the plots don’t amount to much, because all that one cares about is spending time in the company of the characters and in the house. I suspect there’s a large number of readers who have fantasies of going over there and meeting these people.
EI: Someone compared the Wolfe and Archie books to the Jeeves and Wooster books by P. G. Wodehouse. They are domestic comedies where you enjoy the byplay of the characters.
LB: Yeah, there’s that, but both Wolfe and Goodwin are bright and capable, whereas Bertie Wooster is an upper-class ass, generically, and so on.
EI: The Wolfe books are also contractual in nature. There’s always agreements to be met. Archie and Wolfe will agree on certain terms of behavior all the time. Unless you’re extremely lucky, Wolfe won’t take you on unless you can pay him very well.
LB: I wonder if Stout’s life was anywhere near as orderly as his characters because there’s very often no correspondence with that sort of thing.
Fer-de-lance was from ’34 I think, something like that, and he wrote some non-mysteries first including, I’m told, a novel in the second person which was an experiment that failed, from what I understand. That didn’t work at all. If I remember correctly, he wrote five of those, and they were mainstream fiction and had no particular impact. He’d already made a good buck for himself in running the school banking system.
EI: That brings up the point you make that genre fiction still lives on, people still read older genre fiction, whereas conventional novels of the day—the stuff that maybe got the literary prizes—is entirely forgotten. Not in every case and with every book, but…
LB: It’s remarkable how often that’s the case, and there’s even a small core audience for much lesser examples of genre fiction. There are people who read and collect all science fiction. There are people who read all mystery and go all the way back. And that’s not true with much mainstream fiction.
EI: I was just in Left Bank Books on the way to your house, and they had a signed copy of Rex Stout’s The Silent Speaker priced at $2000. I was trying to imagine how many other books that weren’t by the biggest literary names from that era that could command such a sum.
LB: Well, they wouldn’t even be remembered. The bestseller fiction of the time is almost completely forgotten. The genre fiction was written with no hope of immortality but merely to entertain. It’s funny how that works out. Whether that will continue I don’t know. And it doesn’t necessarily single out the best examples by any means, in terms of what remains in print. Agatha Christie remains completely in print and one can understand why. There are no end of people who’ve written Westerns better than Louis L’Amour ever did, to my taste. Yet—I don’t know if this is still the case—but a few years ago his entire body of work was still in print. It’s hard to know what catches the public’s imagination and what continues to hold it.
EI: Here’s another one.
[LB starts book three, THE SCREAMING MIMI by Fredric Brown]
LB: On the first page this feels like Fredric Brown.
EI: That’s right. You got it.
LB: And I do believe I have read the book. Is this The Screaming Mimi?
EI: Yeah, very good.
LB: This is fun.
LB: I’m going to read the rest anyway.
EI: You must.
[LB continues reading]
LB: This is another favorite writer of mine. About 20, 25 years ago Dennis McMillan started publishing uncollected works, much of which were deservedly uncollected, so I can’t think that the posterity was enhanced that much by that, but the early work was wonderful. Well, not the early work, but the work that was published throughout his lifetime was wonderful.
I haven’t read that book in a long time, but I recall it reasonably well. That’s Fredric Brown, a wonderful, wonderful writer.
I had one unfortunate experience with his work. It would have been in ’57, I suppose when I was working at Scott Meredith, and that was just a block away from the Mercantile Library (which is now known as the Center for Fiction), and the wonderful policy that they had there was that they never got rid of books. They kept everything that they had. So they had all long out-of-print mysteries that other libraries would have long since de-accessioned. And while I was working at Scott Meredith, I read a lot of writers that I became fond of and I managed to read their back catalog from the Merc. One Friday night I went home from the office with a book I just picked up from the Merc, one of the Fredric Browns, it may have been the one where the murderer is dressed as Santa Claus—or it may have been another, it doesn’t matter for the story—but the point is that I picked up a bottle of whiskey on the way home and I start reading and every time the narrator took a drink so did I. You can’t do that in a Fredric Brown story. You’re doomed.
EI: Yeah, he drinks an incredible amount, the characters are drinking an incredible amount, and it’s sort of pre-the phrase “alcoholic.”
LB: Absolutely, the phrase may have existed but it didn’t have a whole lot of currency.
EI: So much of it is not about staying sober but managing to be drunk the right amount to keep functioning through your evening.
LB: Well, I don’t think Brown was a stranger to glass and bottle, I think he did drink. Most of the writers of this generation did, so it’s not unusual. A terrific writer.
I knew Ruth Cavin, the mystery editor who died recently at an advanced age, she was still giving authors good advice at 92. She said that one thing that could not be taught and could not really be learned was voice. And a writer’s voice either worked for you or it didn’t, and Brown’s voice is pretty near unmistakable. It wasn’t hard to get that one on the first page. Granted, it’s a book I read, but it’s a book I haven’t read, I’m sure, in 30 or 40 years.
EI: It’ s a good lead that really makes you want to read the rest of the story.
LB: He’s pays it off, too. I mean the underlying principle there that if you want anything badly enough you can have it, and then the corollary that by the time you get it you won’t want it anymore.
EI: For me, of anyone in this pile, he’s the most inconsistent. There are marvelous books and other books that don’t really get off the ground. Of course he also wrote in science fiction and in mystery.
LB: Yes, he wrote a lot more in mystery than in science fiction, but I remember both Martians Go Home and What Mad Universe as being quite brilliant.
EI: Some of the short stories still regularly turn up in The Best Ever Sci-Fi of the Century and so forth.
LB: And a lot of his mystery short stories turned out to be classic. There’s one where you open the book and it’s a whole story about how you, the reader, are going to die. I’m trying to remember the title of that one.
EI: “Don’t Look Behind You.”
LB: Yes, of course.
EI: That’s one of the nice things about the Internet. People are discovering Brown now more so than in the 80s or early 90s, I believe. [Go here to look at Cullen Gallagher’s collection of first lines and cover scans.]
[LB reads book four, THE EIGHTH CIRCLE by Stanley Ellin]
LB: I can’t venture a guess about this writer…
EI: Do you have any impressions about what you’re reading?
LB: Yeah, I’d keep reading!
EI: It’s Stanley Ellin, The Eighth Circle.
LB: Which I did read, but long enough ago that I forgot it all. The character names didn’t ring a bell, or anything else.
EI: This book seems like an accurate portrayal of the way a private eye firm would have actually operated in the late 50s.
LB: It may or may not be accurate, but it’s plausible. You could certainly postulate that firm in fiction and it’s acceptable that way. Very much so. I’ve no idea how much Stanley did know about private eye firms. I’m not sure that’s important.
Do you know much about Stanley’s writing methods?
EI: I know that, for his short stories, he polished each word over and over again.
LB: He wouldn’t go on to the second paragraph until the first paragraph was perfect, and sometimes he’d do 40 drafts of them. And so on, and each paragraph he polished as he went along to an astonishing degree. He wrote one short story a year, and sent it to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, got $1.98 for it and was happy. Strange.
EI: Did you ever meet him?
LB: Yeah, a few times. I can’t say I knew him well. There’s a great story I told in a Mystery Scene piece. Back then, in the very early 60s, Random House, on the flap of the book—for no discernible reason on the front flap—would have the initials of the title. Like on The Mercenaries it said TM. Or maybe it didn’t on that particular one. But on most of them they were all like that. And Stan Ellin was also published by Random House, and his new book came out and the title was The Winter After the Summer, and indeed right on the cover it said TWATS.
Don Westlake or I saw it first and called it to the attention of the other, and we absolutely loved the whole thing. Don was edited by Lee Wright at Random House, as was Stan, and he called it to her attention, and she didn’t know the word. That’s how it had gotten through. And it turned out Stan had done this on purpose. It was not inadvertent by any means. He noticed what they were doing with the initials and tried to figure out what word stood a reasonable chance of getting by. The man knew words. And devised a title to suit. So, if you find a first edition, certainly, of The Winter After the Summer — and I’m not sure there was a second — you’ll find that.
[LB reads book five, DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER by Ian Fleming]
LB: That’s a nice opening.
EI: Yeah, you like that?
EI: I do, too. Ring any distant bells?
LB: Not quite. I don’t believe I’ve read it.
EI: If there’s a ringer in the batch, it’s this one.
LB: Don’t tell me. The one name that popped into my head while I was reading it—and I haven’t read him in so long that I have no idea whether there’s stylistic similarities—was Eric Ambler.
EI: It’s not Ambler, but it is an English spy writer.
LB: It’s not Fleming, is it?
EI: It is. It’s the opening to Diamonds are Forever.
LB: I read a few of Fleming’s, not that many. Aside from the character, I don’t have much sense of writing style. But this was a nice opening, with that scorpion and all.
EI: You never really paid much attention to the James Bond franchise?
LB: No, not that much. I read a few of the books and thought of them as sort of over-the-top and comic book-y. They didn’t work that much for me. They were probably better than I thought, but they didn’t work that much for me.
EI: At this point, it’s hard to remember that there are the books after all the movies for so many years.
EI: It’s hard to think of another franchise where the original texts are as entirely subsumed.
LB: True. And several writers continued writing about James Bond; I’m never entirely sure how I feel about that sort of thing.
EI: In the 60s there was quite a few bestselling espionage series . Did you read the rest of them? John Le Carre, Len Deighton, Ambler?
LB: Well, I read Ambler before any of that. I mean, Vintage Ambler was World War II and earlier and I read Le Carre. Interesting thing about Le Carre, which I never noticed anyone mentioning, was that in several of the early books you have to read the last page 3 times to be exactly sure what happened. There’s an ambiguity there that could hardly be unintentional for someone who knows how to write that well. So, it’s either some profound psychological quirk or he thought he would serve himself best by making it hard to find out whether the people you’ve been reading about all this time are alive or dead at the end. Clearly, one or the other, but its hard to tell which.
EI: You wrote a couple of novels tinged by espionage, or at least that atmosphere: Such Men Are Dangerous and The Triumph of Evil.
LB: Yeah. To one degree or another, those verge sort of on spy fiction. And, of course, the Tanner books are all espionage/foreign agent stuff of a sort. I read most of Deighton, much of Le Carre, most if not all of Ambler, at one time or another.
[LB reads book six, SOFT TOUCH by John D. MacDonald]
LB: Well, I don’t know what that is, and I don’t like it much. It seems awfully obvious. I would guess it is a first or second novel. If not, I like it even less. Now it’ll probably turn out to be my favorite writer.
EI: It’s John D. MacDonald.
EI: From the book Soft Touch. And actually, he’s not my favorite, but I like this one.
LB: I always liked John D. I must have read the book.
EI: He’s someone who hasn’t aged as well as some others.
LB: An interesting fact about John D. MacDonald that I remember being aware of at the time: I never picked up a book of his that I didn’t read without pleasure and satisfaction, but they weren’t re-readable. And I don’t know why. It’s hard for me to say. I liked them on first reading better than I liked, say, the Ross Macdonald books on first reading, but the Ross Macdonald books I can continue to re-read and the John D. MacDonald books I haven’t successfully reread.
EI: I prefer the non-series novels like this one to the Travis McGee series which, to me, just seems just ludicrous.
LB: It gets silly.
EI: McGee is so pompous and fatuous.
LB: Yeah, and McGee’s friend—Meyer, was it?—pontificating and all of that, it lent itself to parody, to an unfortunate extent.
EI: He was a bestseller, though, in the day. I think probably the biggest of the Gold Medal authors.
LB: Oh, absolutely. But it was the McGee series that made that happen. Before that he did well, and the books would get reprinted, he made a good living at it. But Travis McGee won the big audience. People like series.
It’s funny that I didn’t like it. I’m surprised. Damn blindfold.
[LB reads book seven, THE NAME OF THE GAME IS DEATH, by Dan Marlowe]
LB: Well, again, it’s something I certainly don’t recall and I didn’t see anything there that tipped me to who the writer might be. It’s an action opening that almost anyone might have written and that could go almost anywhere. I can’t even guess.
EI: It’s Dan Marlowe.
LB: I was going to say that it was Earl Drake. I almost said that! Though I read several of Marlowe’s books, and some of them a time or two, but I had no recollection of the style, so that much of it couldn’t have rung a bell.
I read The Name of the Game is Death when it came out, as a Gold Medal original if I remember correctly. Evidently Al Nussbaum found it realistic enough to write the author and get in touch. Though these characters seem awfully willing to throw lead around!
The interesting thing about that series was that unlike Donald’s Parker, Marlowe couldn’t let Drake stay a criminal. He had to have him, I don’t know, go to work for one of the spy outfits or something like that.
[LB starts to reads book eight, THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE by George V. Higgins]
LB: George V. Higgins.
LB: Nobody else is as anecdotal as this. Right away, none of his characters can say a sentence without being reminded of a story. And, as somebody said, just read the dialogue of any of his characters and you’ll know immediately just what George V. Higgins thinks the guy sounds like. What he did, he did very well, but a real case of logorrhea. They could just go on forever. I’ll read it anyway.
[LB keeps reading]
LB: He’s sort of fun to read. But every scene is like that.
EI: That’s true. It’s almost like if you’ve read one you’ve read them all, in his case.
LB: In a sense. Frequently there’s a rather elaborate and interesting plot underneath it all, and it dovetails well and all that, but it can be a tiring experience.
EI: I love that book, but I somehow don’t keep the other ones around. That one I keep.
LB: Which is it? The Friends of Eddie Coyle?
EI: Exactly. Which I think did make an impact when it came out.
LB: Oh, absolutely. The anecdotal aspect got worse over time, with some of the later books. You can accept the premise that a couple of guys are like that, but when every character is like that…
EI: Did you know him at all?
LB: No, I never met him.
EI: I think he’s gone on to be an influence on a certain kind of filmmaking, too.
LB: Yeah, and all the Boston writers.
EI: Here’s a shorter one.
[LB reads book nine, LET’S HEAR IT FOR THE DEAF MAN, by Ed McBain (Evan Hunter)]
LB: I know who it is. That’s Evan, and I don’t know if I would have gotten it from style, but as soon as the Deaf Man showed up, I knew. I ought to re-read the books with the Deaf Man again. In fact, someone—I don’t know how many there were, four?
EI: I think six.
LB: Someone should publish them as a group, a couple of triple volumes or something.
EI: I agree, because they do stand out in the series.
LB: Yeah, and there’s a nice continuity there. Which one was this?
EI: This is Let’s Hear It for the Deaf Man, which is such a wonderful title. There’s hilarious pictures of George Washington, J. Edgar Hoover, and other stuff. It’s really a great little book.
LB: Well, I clearly admire Evan enormously, and the 87th Precinct Series is just a towering achievement. I think it runs around 50 books over as many years. And who can do that? He sort of half-froze the characters in time. Carella gets married, his kids age maybe a year for every seven or eight years in real time, whatever they keep getting a little bit older. The books range from ones that are quite light to ones that are truly dark, and that’s alright somehow, the characters remain consistent regardless. I wasn’t all that thrilled when Fat Ollie Weeks came into the picture, myself, but he made that work well enough, anyway. A towering achievement.
EI: I like how, with the half-exception of Steve Carella, these cops are not so heroic. Most of them are good guys, but they fumble the ball quite a lot.
LB: They’re more heroic and more slick and all that probably than they would be if someone like Evan started writing about them now.
EI: The Deaf Man is foiled by bad luck as much as he is by the 87th Precinct.
EI: The cops never even lay a hand on him. It’s interesting.
I love this bit right here where, “nothing changed, but the room seemed suddenly bleak.”
LB: Evan never wrote a bad sentence or a dull paragraph. He’s one of those.
[LB starts to read book ten, THE BURNT ORANGE HERESY by Charles Willeford]
LB: Is this Burnt Orange Heresy?
EI: It sure is.
[LB continues to read]
LB: Yeah, I don’t remember these pages at all. I read the book a long time ago, but the art critic and Florida and something about the style let me guess who it was.
EI: I don’t think this book was really intended to be a crime novel, per se, but has since become known as one, since Willeford is now best-known as a crime writer.
LB: Willeford was never that conscious of the genre that his book might wind up in. He was just writing novels, and he evidently was as comfortable with the stuff that he published with Beacon as with anything else. He was a remarkably quirky guy. The autobiographical volumes are fascinating, I don’t know if you’ve read them.
EI: Yeah I’ve read all of Willeford, and those are some of my favorite of his books.
This art critic in Heresy…he’s the narrator, but eventually you realize that this is not a man you should like; indeed, perhaps you should hate him. It’s very strange perspective.
LB: That final autobiography where Willeford essentially diagnoses himself as a sociopath, that I found fascinating. And I think he was probably right. But he doesn’t seem to have acted out on his sociopathy. Strange, strange person. Did you ever meet him?
LB: One was aware that Charles was one of a kind. You get that from his books and you got that in person. Strange guy.
EI: I think the Hoke Mosely books can be read either as straight thrillers or as a total put-on of the style. Both readings are true.
LB: He really tried to get out of doing the series. I told you about Grimhaven?
EI: Westlake gave me the manuscript to Grimhaven.
LB: You’ve seen it?
EI: It’s pretty grim. Grimhaven. Contrast that with the 87th Precinct Novels, 50 of them, all pretty much perfect in a row. Willeford gets a chance at a sequel, and he writes Grimhaven!
LB: Yeah, well, first he didn’t want to do the sequel. And then that was what he turned in. I know the fellow who was his editor, though we’ve never talked about it. In fact, I haven’t seen him in years — Jared Kieling at St. Martins. Jared said, “No, we’re not going to do this.” Here Willeford’s been toiling all his life. Miami Blues, that’s the first success that you could call success that the man has ever had. Now everything wants to open up to him, and all he has to do is write, and he’s got to find a way to kick that in the teeth. Extraordinary.
EI: The eventual second book, which was called New Hope for the Dead, is actually my favorite of the series.
LB: I liked them all. And his characters are really Willefordian. There’s certain characters no one else could have written. The guy who goes around poisoning the dogs. No one else could create that character. Certainly not that way. Probably not at all. And I think that’s the same guy who explains exactly how you paint the stripe on the side… You know, Willeford was fascinated with how you things, and people who would tell you this is what you do.
EI: You’ll learn a lot about art criticism from Burnt Orange Heresy…except that whatever Willeford himself feels about it is probably something completely different! Same thing with Cockfighter. I can barely stand that ludicrous book, but at the same time it offers a hell of a lot of “valuable” information about cockfighting.
LB: Willeford was very proud of the fact that the cockfighter community — if we want to call it that — all assumed that he was a cockfighter himself and regarded that book as a bible.
[LB reads book eleven, BRIARPATCH by Ross Thomas]
LB: I think I know who this is. Is this Ross Thomas?
EI: Yes, it’s Briarpatch.
LB: That I got from style. I didn’t remember anything I read, but it reads like Ross. He’s sort of unmistakable.
EI: I noticed that when I was looking through his books for this, they all started with a great little scene. Like the first three pages is a perfect little scene in every little book.
LB: He was a wonderful writer. He’s also a writer that one can re-read with enjoyment. There aren’t that many. I wonder if…I’m not sure to what extent Evan is. I don’t think I’ve re-read the 87th Precinct books much, I don’t think I’d much wanted to. I like them, and admire them greatly, but I don’t know if I’d want to take a second shot at them.
EI: It’s funny, I have Ross Thomas in the pile, and John D. MacDonald, but I don’t have any Ross Macdonald, because when I was looking at the opening of a few of the books, I just didn’t feel like doing it, somehow. What’s your feeling about Ross Macdonald?
LB: One thing I’ve found about Ross Macdonald is that the minute I finish the book, even if I’ve read it before, all the details of the plot fly out of my mind. The story doesn’t stay with me, somehow, which perhaps makes it easier to re-read the books. And, you know, it usually turns out that an important plot component is that someone else fathered the character 40 years ago in Canada… But there’s something very engaging about the writing.
EI: I’d agree, they are re-readable, I thought I didn’t like him anymore—I thought I had outgrown him or something—and I looked at some of them again and thought, “These are still very enjoyable.” Although they did, I think, bring into being this idea that there always has to be this backstory from 20 years ago, an unsolved murder from 20 years ago, that will resonate with today. And that’s great the first time or two, but when there are eight in a row, it’s like, come on…
LB: He tells you very very little about Lew Archer. Little glimpses, but very little. That was part of that whole school where one didn’t, where with Chandler, Philip Marlowe or The Continental Op, they existed only as a viewpoint and a window on the world. But that has changed so much. Very often contemporary books are more about the character than about the case.
EI: That’s for sure. It’s a shock in those books when there is a romantic interaction.
LB: Every once in a while Lew Archer gets lucky. Whatever that constitutes.
EI: That’s about the right way to describe it. Ross Thomas didn’t really have a series, he just had…
LB: He had a few recurring characters. You could say that the Padillo/McCorkle books were a series, and the Wu and Durant books.
LB: “Breadknife weather…Breadknives in the afternoon.” I wonder if that’s an homage to Chandler’s line about, you know…
EI: Santa Ana Winds…
LB: Yeah, right, women look at their husbands through it and reach for a knife.
EI: I’m sure that the Fleming thing we looked at, the scorpion scene from Diamonds are Forever, is in a way an homage to the beginning of The Little Sister, where Marlowe stalks a fly, gets a phone call from Manhattan, Kansas, puts the caller on hold, kills the fly, and takes the call.
LB: I’d forgotten that. Sometimes they’re homages and sometimes they’re just shared images.
[LB reads book twelve, THE HOOK by Donald E. Westlake]
LB: This is Don’s, isn’t it?
LB: Yeah, I forget the title.
EI: It’s called The Hook.
LB: The Hook follows The Ax.
EI: Sometimes writers will write about writers and it is boring or self-indulgent, but in this case it makes a lot of sense.
LB: When I was starting out, one of the credos in the business was that one should not write about writers, that readers were not interested in that. I don’t know that that is true anymore, given that it seems to me something like 90% of the reading public are wannabe writers. So I don’t know that that applies. But yes, the books often come off as self-indulgent or self-absorbed. Not this, of course. And this came from…well not Don’s situation, but certainly a very widespread development in the wonderful world of publishing.
EI: He wrote a few books about writers. He wrote this book, A Likely Story, which wasn’t even a crime book but sort of about having too many wives and too many agents, just being a working class writer and the struggles of working with your publisher and all that stuff. And there’s a book about writing erotic books.
LB: Adios Scherezade. We all wrote one of those…
EI: When I asked Don what his favorite era of Lawrence Block was, he said it was all great.
LB: Well, that nice. All of his was. Is. There was a book or two I wasn’t crazy about, but that may have been my state of mind when I read it. That’s one reason I don’t like to do book reviews, because I don’t trust myself that way. And the other is that I’m just not willing to publish a negative review. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with so doing, but I don’t feel that’s my role in life.
EI: I think Don did keep getting better in certain ways. On a sentence level, The Hook is just so tight.
LB: Well, you learn as you go along. And he and I both did this for a long time.
I don’t know if my books have been getting better, but I know that there are ways I move around in the time of the narration—passing by and filling in—that would never have occurred to me to do before and now I don’t even have to think it through. That just feels like a way to do it. So, looking back at it, if you will, it seems as though I’m doing something more complicated, though I’m only doing it because it doesn’t feel all that complicated. At the same time, it was easier to write more rapidly earlier on, because I only saw one way to do anything. So that, you know, there were no choices to make.
EI: I think your latest Scudder, A Drop of the Hard Stuff, is just tremendous.
So what’d you think of the blindfold test?
LB: It was fun. How’d I do?
EI: Very well! I’ve always been fascinated by looking at something without knowing what it is. It makes such a difference to know whose work it is before you begin assessing.
LB: Sure, you bring that to the table, as it were, and it gets in the way. “Oh, this must be wonderful, it’s by so and so,” or, “Oh I know I hate this.”
Ethan Iverson is a pianist, composer, and critic best known for his work in the postmodern jazz trio The Bad Plus, with bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King.
Prior to the forming of TBP, he was the musical director for the Mark Morris Dance Group and a student of both Fred Hersch and Sophia Rosoff. He has worked with artists such as Billy Hart, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Tim Berne, Mark Turner, Ben Street, Lee Konitz, Albert “Tootie” Heath, Paul Motian and Charlie Haden.
Iverson writes about jazz and other subjects at length at his blog, Do The Math.