Master Of Mystery

April 27, 1994|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Book Editor

BETHESDA — Lawrence Block has written 40 books under his own name and, he figures, at least that many under a nom de plume. Most of the latter were forgettable novels, pulp thrillers or, as he says with a hint of embarrassment, "spicy novels" by paperback publishers. Written at the pace of one a month, they usually earned him only a few hundred dollars apiece but, more important, they gave him the chance to lose bad habits and learn to tell a story the way it should be told.

Now, at age 55, Lawrence Block can write hard and tough, the real mean-streets stuff that pervades his wonderful mystery series about New York detective Matthew Scudder. He can be funny and whimsical, as in his series starring Bernie Rhodenbarr, the Greenwich Village bookstore owner and ace burglar. He can write short stories -- he's done three collections so far -- and non-mystery novels, which number 13. He can write about travel and he can write about writing.

From the time he was in his mid-teens, Mr. Block knew he wanted to be a writer, and tonight in New York, he will get the ultimate affirmation. At the annual meeting of the Mystery Writers of America, this consummate writing pro will be named a Grandmaster, the equivalent of being named to the mystery-writing hall of fame. John le Carre was a recent winner, as was Donald Westlake, an old friend.

Mr. Block understands the significance of being named a Grandmaster by the MWA, but for a man who has spent four decades finding the right words, he's having trouble locating them now.

"It's the kind of honor you hope might come sometime in your career, but certainly I didn't expect it this early," he says hesitantly over breakfast at a Bethesda motel, where he is attending the annual Malice Domestic mystery conference. "I don't even know what I'm going to say at the dinner -- just have a few notes or something."

He shrugs and there is an awkward silence.

Others have no problem finding words for Mr. Block. "The only writer I know who is as versatile, who has the range he has -- from comic to the darkest of dark -- is Donald Westlake," says Otto Penzler, who runs a mysteries-only bookstore in New York and is publisher of Otto Penzler Books, a mysteries imprint of Macmillan Press. "Other mystery writers have tried to change the tone of their books, like Elmore Leonard did in 'Touch,' and it just doesn't work. For Don and Larry to write with the authentic voice, the sense of conviction, in two or more types of books, I find it absolutely remarkable."

"Actually, I enjoy switching off, doing different kinds of books," Mr. Block says matter-of-factly. "I can tap into different parts of me, the light side and the dark side."

At first look, Mr. Block seems to be an unlikely candidate to be writing hard-boiled crime fiction. He looks resolutely square, with his short hair, nondescript sports jacket and unobtrusive demeanor.

Quiet, thoughtful and quick-witted, you'd certainly imagine this is the author of the quirky Bernie Rhodenbarr mysteries. Wordplay and comic situations abound in the books, as evidenced in "The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams," just published by Dutton. In it, Bernie is explaining to a friend how he encountered a nude body while committing a burglary:

"What did he look like?"

"Mostly, he looked naked and dead."

"Well, that explains it. You must have recognized him from a Norman Mailer novel."

I gave her a look. "I guess he was in his thirties," I said. "Dark hair, cut short and combed forward like Julius Caesar."

"No stab wounds, though."

There's little such whimsy in the Matthew Scudder books. Mr. Block disputes the notion of some readers who tell him they're getting "darker and more violent," but certainly Scudder is miles apart from Bernie: He's a recovering alcoholic and hard-case P.I. forever haunted by his demons, which include having accidentally killed a 7-year-old girl when he was a New York policeman. His girlfriend is a high-priced call girl and he deals routinely with the worst of the scum of New York.

Scudder's battle with alcoholism is one of the strengths of the series -- it's become a believable and compelling aspect of the books, though told, typically, in low-key fashion. Scudder, by now, has incorporated his AA meetings and friendships with other alcoholics into his daily life; Mr. Block doesn't revert to will-he-or-won't-he-drink writerly histrionics to pump up a book.

"You know, it never occurred to me that he would evolve, that he would get sober -- the lad seemed all right to me," says Mr. Block. "But it'salways been a dark series. The fourth book was the first in which the drinking was becoming problematic, and the fifth one he got sober."

Now Mr. Block gets mail from "sober alcoholics" who praise the Scudder series, though he cautions, "I certainly don't think of them as [anti-drinking] tracts."

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