June 24 was author Lawrence Block’s 82nd birthday. It was also the release date for “Dead Girl Blues,” his latest — and possibly last — novel. The book features a character we are first introduced to as “Buddy,” who picks up a girl at a bar and proceeds to kill her and to then sexually violate the corpse. Buddy goes on to narrate the course of his life as advances in forensic science make it more and more likely he will be finally called to account for his monstrous actions. Sounds dark, right?
And it is. Indeed, it is dark enough that Block has been diligent about warning potential readers about the content so that his longtime, loyal fans can make an informed decision before diving in. That said, those who have read a wide swath of Block’s oeuvre (some 60 years in the making) will hardly be surprised to encounter violence, sex and the intersection between the two. Nor will they be surprised to encounter a character they know they shouldn’t like, but come to like anyway.
Block, who lives in New York, answered questions via email.
Q: What can you tell me about the origin of “Dead Girl Blues?” What was the initial spark?
A: I started with the opening line: “A man walks into a bar.” I didn’t know who he was or what was going to happen beyond the fact that he’d pick up a woman and she’d end the encounter without a pulse. I had no idea that his story would span decades, or that it would fill a novel. I started out thinking I was writing a short story, watched it shape up as a long short story and then as a novelette, realized it might actually be novella length, and, well, one thing led to another.
At one point, maybe 12,000 words in, I abandoned the story, and figured it was unlikely I’d return to it. I thought it was just too dark — not for readers, as I try not to think about readers while I’m writing, but that I myself didn’t want to spend more time in the presence of so much darkness. But then, after a couple of months, I made myself look at it, and I genuinely liked what I’d written, and felt I really ought to see where it led.
So I sat down each morning, set a kitchen timer, and worked for 20 minutes or half an hour or an hour. And the story found its way, and damned if it didn’t grow into a novel. I honestly thought I was done writing novels. The last one I’d written was “The Girl with the Deep Blue Eyes,” and that was published five full years ago. But this definitely fits Randall Jarrell’s famous definition of a novel: “A prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it.”
Q: Your career in crime fiction has been witness to so many changes. Are there particular challenges you’ve encountered that stem from the constant advances in the real world?
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A: In “The Burglar in Short Order” (the latest entry in one of Block’s long-running series), there’s an interview with Bernie Rhodenbarr in which he grouses that tech-based changes have made both burglary and bookselling untenable. eBooks and online bookselling has ruined his book business, while CCTV cameras and a cashless society ruin burglary as a career.
Forensic advances have certainly changed crime fiction. Real-world private investigators spend most of their time online, rarely showing up on any streets, mean or otherwise. Now Nero Wolfe never left the house on business, and that worked fine, but one Nero Wolfe’s all you get. I don’t think it would be terribly interesting to write novels about a deskbound private eye. Periodically, someone points out that the new frontier for criminals is cybercrime, and suggests that as a subject for fiction, and maybe it is — but I wouldn’t want to read it or write it. Readers seem to enjoy looking over Bernie Rhodenbarr’s shoulder when he lets himself into somebody’s house and walked off with the family jewels, and I doubt they’d get the same satisfaction watching someone crack a password and get past a computer firewall, en route to shifting a large sum from one numbered account to another.
Q: I think it’s fair to say you have a fondness for antiheroes. What attracts you to characters who we, as readers, know we shouldn’t root for? And what’s the secret to making us root for them anyway?
A: Yes, it probably says something about my own character, or lack thereof. I seem to have more feeling for the guys in the dark hats. But I don’t like it when my characters are described as flawed. That implies there’s something wrong with them, and it’s a judgment I’m not prepared to make.
I prefer the language of the gemologists. A diamond is best described not as being flawed but as having inclusions. I like that. My characters don’t have flaws. They have inclusions, and are all the more interesting for them.
Q: This book is dark enough that you’ve taken the somewhat extraordinary step of warning your loyal readers that it might not be for them. I’m interested in your thoughts about explicit sex as a narrative tool — what it reveals, how it advances plot, and the like.
A: The warning label on “Dead Girl Blues” is there for a reason, and one that grows out of my experience. Seventeen years ago I published a novel called “Small Town,” a sweeping post-9/11 novel of New York. It was well-received, but it brought in its wake a tide of emails taking me to task for the book’s sexual content; readers who were hoping for a bubbly little book about a charming burglar and his stub-tailed cat were outraged at the lubricious antics of Susan Pomerance. It didn’t drive me to a monastery. I deleted the emails and went on with my life, but I decided I didn’t want to foist “Dead Girl Blues” on anyone who’d be happier without it.
That said, I suppose I write as much as I do about sex because I find it endlessly interesting. Faubion Bowers observed somewhere that sex is the one interesting thing that boring people do, and I think he’s right.
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Q: What’s the source of your ongoing drive to create? Has the public health crisis had any affect on your writing or desire to write?
A: e. e. Cummings wrote that what set him apart was an obsession with making things. When I read that I knew what he meant. I’m old enough to stop, God knows, but I feel a need to be productive. And so I keep bringing out old and new books, I team up with translators and publish my work in Spanish and German and Italian editions, I bring out audio editions of backlist titles, I dream up anthologies and cajole good writers into producing stories for them, and it’s a rare day indeed when I don’t put in a couple of hours at my desk.
Now very little of this activity entails my writing anything new. I’m glad “Dead Girl Blues” is shaping up as such a critical success. (Whether it will succeed commercially remains to be seen, and isn’t all that important anyway.) I’m glad for its success because it may be my last piece of fiction, and will almost certainly be my last novel, and I’m OK with that.
Still, it’s worth noting that it’s a book I never expected to write. So how can I know for certain that there won’t be more?
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’ve got another damned anthology in the works. The working title is “Collectibles,” with all of the stories involving collectors and collections ... The stories are just beginning to come in, and the book should be an appealing one. Look for it sometime in 2021.