December 24, 2010 by Reader's Connection
I’ve raved about the Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder series in other blogposts. I love Matt. But I’d like to say a word about the Keller series, which until now I’ve been incapable of reading.
Sometime during the 1990’s, Lawrence Block was in town, speaking at Borders Books in its earlier Castleton incarnation. He said that he had a friend who was a policeman and who enjoyed the Scudder novels, but wouldn’t read the humorous Bernie Rhodenbarr novels. Bernie is a burglar, and the cop friend didn’t want to read anything that featured a criminal in a positive way. I’ve never known why Block found this so puzzling. I have a related problem with the Keller series.
When Block came out with the well-received Hit Man in 1998, about contract killer John Keller, I blissfully requested a copy. But I read the first couple of stories and locked up.
These stories were too real, and too sympathetic toward this professional murderer. How was I supposed to feel about him? Was I supposed to be amused by the banter he exchanges with Dot, the woman in White Plains who helps with the contracts for his hits?
I’m reminded of a passage from A Walk Among the Tombstones, a wonderful and incredibly grisly Scudder mystery.
The passage, which is–for me, anyway–central to the whole Scudder series, occurs when our detective has been riding around with a client, who drops him off in front of his hotel. Matt is talking about his detective work.
“When I start something I have a hell of a time letting go of it. I think that’s the main way I solve things, to tell you the truth. I don’t do it by being brilliant. I just hang on like a bulldog until something shakes loose.”
“And sooner or later something does? I know they used to say nobody gets away with murder.”
“Is that what they used to say? They don’t say it much anymore. People get away with murder all the time.” I got out of the car, then leaned in to finish the thought. “That´s in one sense,” I said, “but in another sense they don´t. I don´t honestly think anybody ever gets away with anything.”
What is Scudder saying? I don’t think he’s “affirming the traditional moral calculus (to which Job will powerfully object) that it pays to be good, whereas the wicked will be paid back for their evil.” That’s Robert Alter, in The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary, writing a footnote to the First Psalm, which does affirm that calculus. (Happy the man who has not walked in the wicked’s counsel . . . ) Terrible things happen to fairly well-behaved people all the time in the Scudder novels.
And any talk about karma or reincarnation is likelier to come from his girl friend Elaine than it is from Matt, who gets antsy when AA meetings become “relentlessly spiritual.”
It would be hard to pin down Matt’s religious beliefs, but when he leans into Peter Khoury’s car, he seems to indicate the presence, running under everything, of a “judgment and justice, both now and forever” (to quote the prophet Isaiah, from a reading that will be used in some Christian services tonight). People can’t escape themselves or their deeds.
When I enter the world of hit man John Paul Keller, though, I am no longer in the world of Scudder, let alone Isaiah or the Psalmist. Keller gets away with murder all the time, and I’m intrigued and amused. I have fallen off the end of the moral universe, and having a good time in spite of myself.
Block gives us some reasons to feel sympathy for Keller. Of course he had a terrible childhood. His feelings for dogs remind me of another neglected boy, the farm kid who narrates William H. Gass’s story “The Pedersen Kid” (collected in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and later in Still Wild: Short Fiction of the American West), and who tells us, near the end of that brilliant, horrific story, “If they’d given me a dog, I’d have called him Shep.”
And Keller’s stamp collection is a world of its own. When he appeared at Borders way back when, someone asked Block how he came to write so authoritavely about Alcoholics Anonymous (AA meetings and encounters are woven masterfully into A Walk Among the Tombstones). Block smiled, said that he’d done a lot of personal research, and allowed us to draw our own conclusions.
It’s hard to imagine Block as a stamp collector, but “Keller in Retirement,” the last Hit Man story, in the course of which Keller takes on collecting as a hobby, is fascinating–and this hobby will persist through the Keller books.
Wait a minute! What am I saying? I think more highly of this professional assassin because he’s so loyal in pursuit of his hobby? And because he likes dogs? What’s happening to my soul? I plan to be at Mass, tonight, reading that passage from Isaiah, “judgment and justice, both now and forever.” And I’m re-reading A Walk Among the Tombstones in an attempt to re-enter a world where in some sense nobody gets away with anything.
But I have to admit that the Keller has in interesting way of getting himself out of jams. WARNING: Don’t read this material, right now, if you’re prone to holiday gloominess. And if our snow has you depressed, stay away from “The Pedersen Kid” with its blizzard. Author Gass once said that when writing that story he thought about the snowstorms he’d experienced and turned up the volume.