By Lawrence Block – This entertaining collection of short crime fiction combines old and new short stories, plus one novella by multiple-award-winning and amazingly prolific American author Lawrence Block. Never-before appearing in collections, the seven stories cover 56 years of publishing, from 1960 to 2016.
According to Block’s revelatory notes accompanying each story, “Hard Sell” was originally published in 1960 under another author’s name—not unusual in that era, apparently. Of course that still goes on today. Just ask James Patterson. The story itself is an entertaining bit of deduction with a twist at the end, in which the detective not only solves a series of murders but refuses to accuse the culprit. The distinctive character names are fun too and practically Dickensian—Cowperthwaite, Kirschmeyer—especially the running gag that the detective can’t quite remember Kirschmeyer’s name. By the end, he’s calling him Kicklebutton.
Many of the story characters have idiosyncratic names, which is helpful for readers confronted with a lot of different people. These are noir stories, generally, using Dennis Lehane’s definition of noir: In tragedy, a character falls from a great height; in noir, he falls from the curb. And most of Block’s characters perch only precariously on the curb. They’re denizens of bars and cheap motels, rooming houses, and the smoky cop shops of the detectives on their trail.
Block has a straightforward, unassuming, unsentimental style that carries you right through to his pull-up-short endings. Often they seem to be set in some ambiguous former era, before smartphones and DNA analysis changed the rules for cat-and-mouse games.
One of my favorites in this collection is “Autumn at the Automat,” a 2017 Edgar Award winner. Block’s surprise ending made me laugh out loud. Says Block, the story came to him upon seeing Edward Hopper’s painting “Automat.” His paintings are stories-in-waiting, and Block edited an entire anthology of Hopper-inspired fiction, In Sunlight or in Shadow, published in 2016.
Finally, the collection’s title story perfectly fits the “noir” definition above. Bill Thompson is convinced he’s committed some unremembered violence and believes he has to get out of town. He lands in a small town with a job he’s good at and a girlfriend who fills all his requirements. The trick will be to get out of his own way and let himself succeed. This isn’t a story with a plot twist like the others. Much as you want Bill to make a go of it, you carry a load of unease that he will not. Block says this story is based on a true story he heard one night almost forty years before he actually wrote it. It haunted him, and he tells it well.