A Conversation with Grand Master of Noir Lawrence Block On his writings, Matthew Scudder, and his anthology pipeline. | More2Read
 

A Conversation with Grand Master of Noir Lawrence Block On his writings, Matthew Scudder, and his anthology pipeline.



Lawrence Block has been writing crime, mystery, and suspense fiction for more than half a century.  He has published in excess (oh, wretched excess!) of 100 books, and no end of short stories.

Born in Buffalo, N.Y., LB attended Antioch College, but left before completing his studies; school authorities advised him that they felt he’d be happier elsewhere, and he thought this was remarkably perceptive of them.

His earliest work, published pseudonymously in the late 1950s, was mostly in the field of midcentury erotica, an apprenticeship he shared with Donald E. Westlake and Robert Silverberg. The first time Lawrence Block’s name appeared in print was when his short story “You Can’t Lose” was published in the February 1958 issue of Manhunt. The first book published under his own name was Mona (1961); it was reissued several times over the years, once as Sweet Slow Death. In 2005 it became the first offering from Hard Case Crime, and bore for the first time LB’s original title, Grifter’s Game.

LB is best known for his series characters, including cop-turned-private investigator Matthew Scudder, gentleman burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr, globe-trotting insomniac Evan Tanner, and introspective assassin Keller.

Because one name is never enough, LB has also published under pseudonyms including Jill Emerson, John Warren Wells, Lesley Evans, and Anne Campbell Clarke.

LB’s magazine appearances include American Heritage, Redbook, Playboy, Linn’s Stamp News, Cosmopolitan, GQ, and The New York Times. His monthly instructional column ran in Writer’s Digest for 14 years, and led to a string of books for writers, including the classics Telling Lies for Fun & Profit and The Liar’s Bible.  He has also written episodic television (Tilt!) and the Wong Kar-wai film, My Blueberry Nights.

Several of LB’s books have been filmed. The latest, A Walk Among the Tombstones, stars Liam Neeson as Matthew Scudder and is scheduled for release in September, 2014.

LB is a Grand Master of Mystery Writers of America, and a past president of MWA and the Private Eye Writers of America. He has won the Edgar and Shamus awards four times each, and the Japanese Maltese Falcon award twice, as well as the Nero Wolfe and Philip Marlowe awards, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Private Eye Writers of America, and the Diamond Dagger for Life Achievement from the Crime Writers Association (UK). He’s also been honored with the Gumshoe Lifetime Achievement Award from Mystery Ink magazine and the Edward D. Hoch Memorial Golden Derringer for Lifetime Achievement in the short story. In France, he has been proclaimed a Grand Maitre du Roman Noir and has twice been awarded the Societe 813 trophy. He has been a guest of honor at Bouchercon and at book fairs and mystery festivals in France, Germany, Australia, Italy, New Zealand, Spain and Taiwan. As if that were not enough, he was also presented with the key to the city of Muncie, Indiana. (But as soon as he left, they changed the locks.)


Lou Pendergrast

The Matthew Scudder we meet in A Time to Scatter Stones has been around for a while, hasn’t he?
When did we first meet Scudder?
And where did he come from?

 

Lawrence Block

We met him in The Sins of the Fathers, published in 1975 as a Dell paperback original. My agent at the time was Henry Morrison, and he suggested that I develop a series about a tough New York cop. Around that time I read On the Pad, Leonard Schecter’s book about Bill Phillips, an NYPD cop and Knapp Commission witness in an investigation of police corruption, and it was an influence; Schecter, who died a year before its publication, was one of the dedicatees of The Sins of the Fathers. 

I realized early on that I’d be more comfortable writing about an ex-cop than an active member of the force. I didn’t want to get bogged down in police procedure, and I felt more comfortable from an outsider’s perspective. 



Lou Pendergrast

How old was Scudder back then?

 

Lawrence Block

I didn’t specify, because there was no need. Many years later I wrote A Long Line of Dead Men, which is very much about aging and mortality and the passage of time, and in that context it seemed to me it was an evasion not to be specific about Scudder’s age. Counting back, it’s clear he was 37 years old in 1975.


LP

And that would make him how old now? Eighty?

 

LB

Something like that. To paraphrase Eubie Blake on his 100th birthday, if I’d known Scudder was going to last this long I’d have taken better care of him. I never expected him to age in real time. I never expected him to age at all. Series characters in mystery fiction generally stayed the same age forever. 

And other characters of mine have evidently drunk from Ponce de Leon’s fountain. Bernie Rhodenbarr hasn’t aged or changed—or learned the error of his criminous ways, either. But the Scudder novels are operating on a different level of realism, and it became clear to me early on that, in order for me to take the books seriously, Scudder had to age in the role, and had to be affected in one book by what he’d undergone in previous books.

And so he’s aged in real time, which means he can’t have the sort of adventures he had early on. 


LP

And yet he seems pretty lively in A Time to Scatter Stones.

 

LB

I guess that’s true.



LP

And has at least one pretty surprising adventure by the time the book is over.
Will there be more adventures, do you think?

 

LB

I doubt it, Lou. But then I didn’t expect to write A Time to Scatter Stones, so I’m not much inclined to make predictions. 


LP

Well, will there be more adventures for you? 

 

LB

That’s equally hard to say. See, I made the same mistake as Scudder—I aged in real time. I can’t say I recommend it. It may be okay for characters, but it’s hell on writers.


LP

It seems to me you’ve got a whole queue of books lined up.

 

LB

There are three in the pipeline. First up is At Home in the Dark, a cross-genre anthology of 17 original stories. The line-up is impressive: N. J. Ayres, Laura Benedict, Jill D. Block, Richard Chizmar, Hilary Davidson, Jim Fusilli, Joe Hill, Elaine Kagan, Joe R. Lansdale, Warren Moore, Joyce Carol Oates, Ed Park, Nancy Pickard, Thomas Pluck, James Reasoner, Wallace Stroby, and Duane Swierczynski. The title comes from O. Henry’s last words, spoken on his deathbed: “Turn up the lights. I don’t want to go home in the dark.”


LP

Great line to go out on.

 

LB

Isn’t it? The stories have one thing in common, besides their excellence. They’re all dark stories.

Subterranean Press is publishing the book in hardcover, as a signed-and-numbered limited edition. Their edition sold out well in advance of its April 30 publication date. I’ll be publishing the paperback and ebook versions; the $9.99 ebook is widely available for pre-order, and the paperback will be on sale in due course.


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LP

And after At Home in the Dark—

 

LB

—comes From Sea to Stormy Sea. As you probably recall, I’ve done two art-based anthologies, both of them with Pegasus. In Sunlight of in Shadow consists of stories inspired by paintings of Edward Hopper, while Alive in Shape and Color derives from paintings by seventeen different artists.


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LP

Seventeen? Do all of your anthologies have seventeen stories?

 

LB

It does seem to work out that way.


LP

And they all have five-word titles.

 

LB

Most of them. All of the stories in From Sea to Stormy Sea are based on paintings by American artists—Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, Andy Warhol, Helen Frankenthaler, Robert Henri, Reginald Marsh, Harvey Dunn, Winslow Homer, Warren Moore Jr., Daniel Morper, John Steuart Curry, John Hull, Rockwell Kent, Raphael Soyer, Mark Rothko, George Bellows, and Piet Mondrian. 


LP

And the writers?

 

LB

John Sandford, Jane Hamilton, Jan Burke, Christa Faust, Scott Frank, Gary Phillips, Patti Abbott, Brendan Dubois, Warren Moore III, Micah Nathan, Sara Paretsky, Tom Franklin, Jerome Charyn, Janet Eidus, Barry Malzberg, and Charles Ardai.


LP

That’s only sixteen.

 

LB

Who’d I leave out? Oh, right. Myself. I wrote the Raphael Soyer story. 


LP

So you’re still writing.

 

LB

Well, in a small way. But I’m trying to quit…


LP

You also said there are three books in the pipeline. What’s the third?

 

LB

It’s called The Burglar in Short Order. And no, dammit, it’s not a new Bernie Rhodenbarr novel. He’s the titular burglar, but the book’s not a novel. It’s not even new.  Although I did write a new piece to introduce it, and another new piece as an afterword. 

But it’s not coming out until early 2020, as a limited edition from Subterranean Press, to be followed by my own publication of the thing in ebook and paperback—


LP

Your new formula?

 

LB

It seems to work well enough. But that’s all I want to say about the book for now. You want to know more, get hold of me nine months from now.

 

LP

It’s a date. And thank you, Lawrence Block!




 

Reviewed by Lou Pendergrast on 26 February 2019