Lawrence Block is an absolute giant in the crime fiction world and has been for well over five decades. He is responsible for some of the most memorable characters covering both sides of the law. On the side of law and order is the government agent Evan Tanner, blurring the lines a little is unlicensed private detective in Matt Scudder and then the line is crossed and Bernie Rhodenbarr (The Burglar) and hit man John Keller take over.
As well as the popular series that we all hang out for each year is an impressive list of stand-alone thrillers. Many of these hardboiled stories edge into the style of the old-time pulp detective stories that plumb the depths of criminal life.
From Scudder to Rhodenbarr
His best loved and most successful character is Matt Scudder, the ex-alcoholic knight errant of New York City who started out as an off-the-books private detective.
The first book in the series is The Sins Of the Fathers (1976) and we meet Scudder as a former New York City cop who left the force after accidentally shooting a young girl. He is an alcoholic living in a rent-controlled hotel room and occasionally accepts jobs from friends as an unofficial private detective. His alcoholism is allowed to run rampant through Time To Murder and Create, In the Midst of Death and A Stab In the Dark.
It’s not until Eight Million Ways to Die (1982), the 5th book in the series that Scudder starts to reform his drinking. His visits to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings become a frequent and integral part of many of the books to follow.
Although he is essentially a good man, he associates with people with dubious pasts. A regular character and confidante is Irish bar owner Mick Ballou who is also a greatly feared career criminal and the all-night conversations after the bar has closed appear to help him through some of the toughest times.
As the series continues we see the return of Elaine, a woman he was involved with in the past who also happened to be a high-priced hooker. Theirs is a relationship that rekindles in A Ticket To the Boneyard (1990) and strengthens.
Although the constant struggle with sobriety and a sense of paying for past sins is a continuing theme, it is the plots behind the central case of each book that is the real strength of the series. This is a mystery series, after all, and without good solid plots from which each book is based it would fail to interest crime readers.
In A Long Line of Dead Men (1994) Scudder is facing the deaths of members of a club. Someone is systematically knocking them off so that the original group of 31 men is down to only 15. It requires careful investigation to work out what is happening, but more importantly, it requires a lot of creativity to deal with the person behind it all.
Two of the books from the series have been turned into major motion pictures. Eight Million Ways To Die was the first with Jeff Bridges playing Scudder. Important changes to the story were made in this version, most notably is that the setting is in California and Scudder is a sheriff's deputy. More recently, A Walk Among the Tombstones with Liam Neeson playing Scudder, was released. This is far more true to the original story.
Bernie Rhodenbarr is a mild-mannered New York bookstore owner who also happens to work nights as a burglar. This is a far more comic crime series that tends towards the lighter side of every situation. Bernie is a professional but he always seems to get himself into difficult situations.
In a lot of ways the series is very reminiscent to the Dortmunder series by Donald Westlake in that the planning is very thorough but the execution invariably goes haywire. You should definitely start with the first book of the series Burglars Can’t Be Choosers. Other highlights are The Burglar Who Liked To Quote Kipling which won the 1979 Nero Award and The Burglar in the Library which gives a clear nod to Agatha Christie.
Block has used many pseudonyms over the years for both his books and short stories. Names such as Lee Duncan, Andrew Shaw, Paul Kavanagh, Sheldon Lord, Chip Harrison, Lesley Evans, Jill Emerson, Anne Campbell Clark and John Warren Wells are scattered through his bibliography.
Awards and Recognition
The awards that he has one are numerous with the personal ones including the Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America, The Eye Lifetime Achievement Award from The Private Eye Writers of America and the Diamond Dagger Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Crime Writers Association chief among them.
He has won the 1992 Edgar Award for Best Mystery with A Dance At the Slaughterhouse and the Shamus Award twice, the 1983 Best Novel with Eight Million Ways to Die and the 1994 Best Novel with The Devil Knows You’re Dead. The Burglar Who Liked To Quote Kipling won the 1979 Nero Award.
Add to that the award nominations that his novels have picked up such as Edgar Award nominations with Time To Murder and Create, Eight Million Ways to Die, A Dance At the Slaughterhouse and A Long Line of Dead Men. Shamus Award nominations include A Stab In the Dark, When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, Out On the Cutting Edge, A Ticket To the Boneyard, A Dance At the Slaughterhouse and A Long Line of Dead Men. When the Sacred Ginmill Closes was also nominated for an Anthony Award and a Macavity Award and A Ticket To the Boneyard was also nominated for an Anthony Award.