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Grandmaster Block

Best-Selling crime novelist and Buffalo Native Lawrence Block takes a stab at the movies.

Lawrence Block doesn’t know how many novels he’s written. Won’t even hazard a guess.

Lawrence Block

The “other books by” page in one of his recent efforts lists 55 of them (more or less—I didn’t have my abacus handy when I counted them). That doesn’t include collections of short stories or his highly regarded books about the craft of writing fiction.

But that’s just the official list. In his salad days, the Buffalo native who grew up on Starin Avenue and graduated from Bennett High honed his craft by knocking out paperback originals that ran the gamut from hard-boiled to sleazy. (Which is a fine gamut with me.)

Writing these early, pseudonymous novels made it “possible to make more of a living than I was likely to make any other way,” Block recalls over the phone from Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, the place he has called home since leaving Buffalo in the early 1960s. “It was better than bagging groceries at Loblaws.”

From such beginnings, Block has matured into one of America’s most esteemed mystery novelists. His mantle is graced with at least one of just about every award in his field, and he is a Grandmaster of the Mystery Writers of America, which among mystery writers is the equivalent of a lifetime achievement Oscar, except that they don’t wait until your career is over to give it to you.

He has become so identified with Manhattan that the New York Daily News ranked Block #13 on its list of the 100 Coolest People in New York, placing him ahead of Richard Price, Max Weinberg, Lou Reed, and even Tito Puente. If anyone ever said that of me, I’d put it on my headstone. Hell, I’d get it carved now so that I wouldn’t have to wait until I was dead to enjoy it: “Cooler than Tito Puente.”

A writer whose skill with intricate plots is exceeded by his gift for characters who get under your skin and stay there, Block has created a number of series characters who win new fans with every appearance. The best-known remains Matt Scudder, alcoholic ex-cop turned unlicensed investigator, the subject of 16 novels since 1976. A year later Block launched the more lighthearted adventures of Bernie Rhodenbarr, bookstore proprietor and habitual burglar, in a series that pokes a genial elbow in the ribs of crime fiction clichés.

These fellows have been on vacation in recent years as Block spends time with someone who has put him regularly on 21st-century best seller lists: John Keller, philatelist and assassin for hire. The fourth Keller novel, Hit and Run, will be published on June 24, which also happens to be Block’s 70th birthday.

But it’s never too late to strike out into new territory, and our conversation is prompted by Block’s screenwriting debut, My Blueberry Nights, now playing at the Eastern Hills cinema. (He asks if it’s playing at the North Park; maybe I should have lied?)

Block’s credit shares the screen with an impressive name: It was directed by no less than Wong Kar Wai. Long a favorite of critics and arthouse buffs for his brooding, intoxicatingly colorful films about thwarted love (In the Mood for Love, Chungking Express), the Chinese auteur has in the past always written his own scripts. For his first English language film, he called on Block to help him craft a screenplay about a young woman (singer Norah Jones in her acting debut) who sets off on a cross-country journey after being two-timed by her boyfriend.

So how did this collaboration come about? “He’s a fan of mine, has been for many years, especially of the Scudder books,” Block says. “He got in touch quite a few years ago, wanting to explore the possibility of filming something of mine and perhaps working on something with me. We had a couple of projects that didn’t get anywhere, and then he proposed this.

“He saw Norah Jones, I don’t know if he saw her live or in a video, and immediately became fixated that she should star in his next movie, and that this would be a great vehicle for her. It started as an eight-minute film that took place in a delicatessen in Hong Kong. He wanted to open it up, have it be a picaresque tale in which Norah Jones goes off to see America.”

While My Blueberry Nights arrives in American theaters in a version 20 minutes shorter than the one that opened the Cannes Film Festival last year, Block says the movie didn’t lose any plot in the editing process. “There wasn’t much cut in the way of incident. The version that was shown at Cannes was just too fucking long.“

Hollywood has generally proven an inconsistent suitor to Block over the years. He wrote a screenplay for a Keller adaptation that almost got filmed with Jeff Bridges, and Harrison Ford almost played Scudder in a movie based on A Walk Among the Tombstones. (According to an online interview with Scott Frank, who was set to direct it, Ford “chickened out” of playing such a dark character in such a grim tale.)

Maybe that’s just as well. Block adaptations that did make it to the big screen include Eight Million Ways to Die, which smartly cast Jeff Bridges as Scudder and stupidly moved the setting to Los Angeles; and Burglar, gender-switched to cast Whoopi Goldberg as Bernie.

For such a productive scribe, Block is hardly chained to his typewriter. He and his wife are avid travelers, having moved on to explore the rest of the world after spending two years in the late 1980s driving around the US to visit different cities named Buffalo. (Without exhausting the list of possibilities, they made it to 66.) And he has a passion for walking—not the kind you do to get from point A to point B, but race walking. It will be the subject of his next book, Step By Step: A Pedestrian Memoir, to be published in 2009. As he explains, “It’s an Olympic event, though not the way I do it. The people who do it, aside from some youthful athletes, are people who ran for awhile and then our knees went.”

For this year, though, Block fans will be looking forward to the next appearance of John Keller next month. Like all of Block’s best creations, Keller is a character who holds our attention not because of the story in which he’s involved but because he is a plausibly drawn, imperfect adult male of a type that fiction doesn’t seem to care much about anymore. But he’s also more than a little troubling, because while Keller is an interesting and likeable fellow who wrestles with life issues, he is also someone who kills people. Not merely bad people, but whoever someone has paid him to kill, seldom for any reason that he knows of.

In a way, he’s Bernie the Burglar to the nth degree. When I tell Block that I couldn’t read any of the Bernie books for a few years after my own abode was burglarized—somehow they just didn’t seem funny anymore—he laughs and says, “You’re not the first person who’s had that experience.”

So how are we to react to Keller? “An interesting thing about Keller is not so much that readers have a problem with him, as that readers have a problem with the fact that they don’t have a problem with him,” Block says. “I was doing a book signing in Marin County for Hit List [the second Keller novel]. One of the women in the audience had read the book already—it always interests me how many people who show up at a signing have already read the book—and she said, ‘I think you’re dong something very disturbing here. I was reading the book and I found myself looking up from it and gazing off into the middle distance, and I actually said out loud, “Well, he kills people, what’s so bad about that?”’ I think Keller winds up being a guilty pleasure for a lot of people—they like him and they don’t think they ought to. I didn’t set about trying to make that happen, it seems to be a consequence of the way the books turn out.”

Block is not the only prominent novelist who cut his teeth on salacious stories in his youth, though some of them are less willing to ’fess up. There may be dross among that early work, but there’s a good amount of gold too. More and more of Block’s early work has been resuscitated in recent years, including an excellent series of paperbacks (with appropriately lurid covers) issued by Hard Case Crime, a publisher dedicated to reprinting the best of that golden age of crime fiction.

Hard Case editor Charles Ardai, himself a novelist, cites Block as his major influence. “I’ve read all his books, multiple times apiece, and never cease to marvel at his gifts, at his extraordinary craft as a writer, at his ability to bring characters to life, and at his talent for making even the most morally questionable characters sympathetic,” Ardai says in an e-mail. “He’s enormously witty and wise, and his books are deeply and consistently satisfying. Sentence for sentence, I think he’s the best writer the genre has produced since Raymond Chandler.”

When Block mentions that none of his early work has been re-published without his consent, I ask if anyone has ever approached him about reprinting an early work that he might prefer to leave to the dustbins of history. After thinking for a moment, he replies, “Not really. I’ve found that greed is just an enormously powerful motivator. And if you leave anything to the dustbins of history, some son of a bitch is going to find it there anyway.”

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