Lawrence Block


"Hit and Run"

(reviewed by Hagen Baye AUG 11, 2008)

Lawrence Block's likeable hit man John Keller finds himself in a terrible predicament in Hit and Run, the 4th book of Block's series about the last series character he created. Keller gets nicely set up and framed for a political assassination he has absolutely nothing to do with. The frame is so well orchestrated that Kßeller’s picture is plastered on all TV programs and newspapers across the country and he is rendered a fugitive. To make a terrible situation horrific, it looks like Keller loses just about everything he possesses: Dot, his best friend and confidant; his prized stamp collection, his retirement stash of $2.5 million, his New York City apartment (to some a priceless commodity), and his very identity. Regarding the last, the main event of Hit and Run means he can no longer be John Keller; he must recreate himself and his life in order to go on—if he is to go on at all.
How Keller deals with all this is an amazing thing to read, as newly septuagenarian Block (he turned 70 on the book’s release date of June 24, 2008) continues to work his masterful writing magic. (Block’s age has nothing to do with anything really; it’s just a biographical tidbit worthy of note to his readers.)

In the beginning of Hit and Run, Keller is on his second "last" assignment. He had just returned from a hit that was supposed to be his last. A hot investment tip from one of the assignments related in Hit Parade, book #3 in the Keller series (a collection of short stories, like the first two Keller books, Hit Man and Hit List, Hit and Run being the only novel of the series), had been parlayed by Dot, Keller's job broker and trusted friend, into a cool $2.5 million, providing Keller with far in excess of what he needs to retire comfortably and devote serious time to his beloved stamp collection—and he’s finally ready to do just that. However, a former client, known to Dot and Keller only as "Call-Me-Al" specifically requests Keller for a hit in Des Moines. Keller accedes and it eventually sets off the life altering series of events alluded to above.

In Des Moines, Keller is met by some hairy-eared fellow who provides the details of the assignment. This fellow provides Keller with a choice between a revolver and a Glock, insisting that Keller feel the grip of both before making a decision. Keller chooses the revolver. Mr. Ear Hair runs down the details about the person to be hit with the instruction that Keller would be advised of which of the next day or so to carry it out, as someone has to be out of town when it went down. Mr. Hairy Ears even provides a disposable cell phone to expedite communications between himself and Keller, a car for Keller’s getting about and a prearranged hotel room—all registered to the name of Leroy Montrose.

Keller, being very cautious and only so trusting, and without informing the fellow, declines the use of the car, the hotel room and the cell phone, and the only use he makes of the room is to ditch the cell phone under its bed's king size mattress.

On each of the next few days Keller is informed that that day is not the day. Then, finally, Keller is given the go ahead. Curiously, that same morning the first African-American governor of Ohio is visiting Iowa, on account of his presidential aspirations, and is assassinated. Lo and behold, the weapon is a Glock and the next thing Keller knows his photo is on the TV screen and he's said to be the alleged assassin—at least, Leroy Montrose is. Then, it all comes to him: He’s been set-up and the frame began with Keller's previous job for "Al.” That's when the photo was taken. Mr. Ear Hair had gotten him to put his prints all over the Glock Keller rejected for the Des Moines job. That's also why the client was so accommodating about the car, cell phone and lodging. Everything was to point at Keller/Leroy Montrose and away from the real hit man with connections to this mysterious Al.

Keller has to run for his life to elude both the authorities as well as Al et al, who surely wants him out of commission. And with his face plastered all over the network and cable news channels Keller needs to lay real low so he's not recognized and turned in by some concerned citizen. Keller is short on cash because he preferred to pay cash for stamps rather than stiffing the stamp dealer with a phony credit card, issued to Holden Blankenship (in whose name were Keller’s airline tickets, hotel room and rental car booked).

Keller is confidant that the police will be able trace his pre-assassination movements as Holden Blankenship (which eventually does happen) and find out about the car he rented in lieu of the one procured for him by Al’s people. For that reason, Keller goes to the Des Moines International airport, finds a similar car and swaps plates. He leaves town and lays low by sleeping in his car or staying in small family-run motels--in one instance actually taking over a room as it's vacated by a couple visiting the cheatin' side of town. Keller further minimizes the risk of detection by getting food from fast food places (take out windows whenever possible) and spending his days in darkened movie theaters, taking in a couple of movies.

How well publicized his photo is is highlighted to him when the owner of a gas station in Indiana recognizes and tries to apprehend him. Keller kills the fellow and takes from him some $300 in cash, a credit card and a full tank of gas—as well as a Homer Simpson hat that Keller puts to good use to help hide disguise his appearance. (Readers may initially react with surprise when Keller suddenly kills this fellow, but then one recalls that Keller is, after all, a hit man.)

Up to this point Keller is operating on the premise that once he reaches New York City he’d be safe. Then, he comes upon a newspaper that highlights the fallacy of that premise. A prominent headline about an arson-murder in White Plains catches his eye. Keller learns that Dot's house was destroyed by fire that was determined to have been set. Dot was found within. The fire was a pretense to cover her murder as she'd been shot twice in the head. "Dorothea Harbinson" was said to have been positively identified by dental records. Keller's only friend was gone, along with the only means he had to access his $2.5 million retirement fund, as Dot had total control over it and he knew not where any of his monies was kept. Even if he did know, he was sure that the accounts'd be frozen by now as the news media had reports of his neighbors matching the photo to their neighbor John Keller of unknown occupation who made frequent out of town trips for unknown reasons. Keller surmised that Al was behind Dot’s murder. And Al was sure to be gunning for Keller as well.

A sneak visit to his apartment, abetted by a nice tip to a discreet doorman, confirms that either the police or Al's forces had been there. To Keller’s dismay, his cherished stamp collection is gone. Fortunately, his hidden emergency bankroll of some $1,200 was still where he had squirreled it; these funds would help to tide him over until he figures out his next steps.

Keller realizes that he has been stripped bare of everything that was his, his very identity, home, best and only real friend, his retirement fund and his prized possession. He has to somehow remain incognito in order to elude both the law and Al and figure out how to start his life all over again. He has been effectively forced into early retirement as a hit man without the wherewithal to support himself.

Fugitive Keller is forced on the road again. Eventually, he finds himself in New Orleans and his daily grind of fast food has gotten to him and he is compelled to take to the streets on foot to savor the cuisine that makes New Orleans, even post-Katrina, great. He manages to eat well, stay unrecognized and is walking back to his car when he is drawn to a scream and stops a rape in progress. Although he left his gun in the car, he is able to easily disarm a knife-wielding rapist and proceeds to kill the man with his bare, well-practiced hands. The victim is appreciative and amazed. She is surprised that by his reluctance to call the police, and she soon recognizes him as the governor’s alleged assassin. He assures her of his innocence and she not only believes him, but offers to put him up in her house as a token of her gratitude for his saving her life. (At this point, the reader may expect him to kill her due to her recognizing him, but Keller the ambivalent hit man doesn’t, especially since she did not appear to be a threat, like that other fellow in Indiana.)

The relationship between Keller and this lady named Julia would slowly flourish and Keller would bit by bit begin rebuilding his life, albeit with a new look (different hair style, dyed hair and bifocals) and new identity as Nicholas Edwards (with authentically issued identification based on a child with that name who died while an infant--easily doable in devastated New Orleans). Julia helps him to find work in construction. Keller proves to be a good worker and he finds satisfaction with the work.

At this juncture in the story Block makes like Chubby Checker in his prime and nicely finesses certain monumental twists that will spin both Keller’s and the readers’ heads. These twists prove several of Keller's earlier conclusions to be incorrect to his great surprise and delight, and he's spurred on to eliminate "Al" as a threat. Keller knows how precarious his existence is, especially with respect to Al. He realizes that he has to take the initiative if he's going to be able to resume a somewhat normal life, where he need not look over his shoulder at all times and worry that he'd be spotted by Al or one of his associates.

It is virtually impossible to trace the user of a disposable cell phone. However, such phones do make a record of the calls made from them; and Keller, aided by a welcomed assistant using a clever ruse gains access to the motel room in Des Moines that Al’s people had reserved for him and retrieves the disposable cell phone provided by Mr. Hairy Ears from beneath the king size bed's mattress. Keller accesses the calls that had been made on it and hits upon Mr. Ear Hair's home phone number. From there Keller uses his wiles to accomplish his revenge. In the end, Keller becomes comfortable with his new identity and home and is ready to start a full (fuller than he would have previously imagined) new life with Julia.

This all gets pulled off in vintage and inspired Lawrence Block manner, and one will just have to read the book to fully appreciate and enjoy it all. Among a score of attributes, Block is a brilliant writing technician. For example, he starts off Hit and Run not at the beginning, but in mid-stream with the day of the assassination and the following chapters work their way to the beginning of the story, when Keller accepts Al’s assignment. The amazing thing about this technique is that at the end of the book the reader remembers the story from start to finish, and it is only when the reader goes back to the start does the reader recall that the start is not the beginning of the story—that’s how effective Block utilizes the technique.

But a reader is left to wonder whether Block has effectively ended the Keller series with Hit and Run. Keller loses his identity as Keller—he’s now a construction worker known as Nicholas Edwards--and Dot’s business is over? Walter Mosley appears to have recently ended his Easy Rawlins’ series by killing off Rawlins at the end of Blond Faith. With no more Keller, has this hit man been truly engaged in his last hit? Given Block’s creative powers and ample ability to create amazing twists and turns in his stories, only time will tell for sure.

  • Amazon readers rating: starsfrom 26 reviews
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"Hit Parade"

(reviewed by Hagen Baye SEP 30, 2006)

John “The Hit Man” Keller is the latest of the series characters created by Lawrence Block.  In response to a question about whether he ever considered writing a story involving a couple of his series characters, Block replied that it was not possible, “because they each occupy different universes.”  So true, and the creation of such unique and distinctively diverse characters is but one of the hallmarks of Block’s brilliance that distinguishes him from many of his peers. There is, indeed, very little in common among ex-cop, ex-alcoholic Matt Scudder, happy-go-lucky burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr, hot-to-trot apprentice PI Chip Harrison, eccentric master of espionage Evan Tanner and assassin-for-hire John Keller.   Keller is a highly complex character, whereas Bernie, Chip and Evan are too comic to be taken totally seriously.  Scudder, the primordial existential man, who stripped himself of home, family and career, and then pulled himself out of the gutter of alcoholism and rebuilt himself into a fully functioning person, is an extremely complex character.   However, there is a strong element of reality about Scudder that readers can relate to, whereas readers need to suspend reality with respect to Keller, as few are able to relate to the ways of a professional hit man.

Hit Parade is Block’s third collection of Keller stories.  Like the two previous collections, Hit Man and Hit List, it is not a novel per se, as there is no central plot, just a series of stories, each pertaining to a separate “assignment.”  The stories do flow chronologically, are unified by Keller’s contacts with his employer, and the experience of the earlier hits inform those that come later.  And then there are the conflicts that are troubling Keller throughout Hit Parade.

Block’s creation is not exactly a red-blooded murderer.  For Keller, being a hit man is a profession that he literally fell into.  He only kills those he is contracted to hit.  Sometimes it becomes necessary to kill others as ancillary to a contracted hit, like when Keller had to kill a person who happened to walk in on a hit.   In reaction to this murder, Keller got sick to his stomach and vomited.

Keller needs certain “exercises” to assist him to block out memories of his victims, most of whom he only knows as impersonal targets, not as human beings.  Apparently, he has to expend greater efforts to make those exercises work, for he keeps harping on them throughout Hit Parade. On the one hand, he is averse to being characterized as a sociopath, but he also realizes how much easier it would be to sleep and block out his victims if he were.  And then, Keller gets to know some of his Hit Parade victims personally and this only creates further conflict for him.

In Hit Parade, Keller thinks seriously about getting out of the business.  In addition to the other issues plaguing him, post-911 tightened security has complicated his modus operandi.   Air travel has become more problematic what with the heightened security and the need to travel with legitimate IDs.  Keller even drives cross-country for a hit in order to avoid having to go through airport security.   However, being a contract killer is the only profession he knows, and at this juncture of his life it would be impossible for Keller to amass sufficient funds to retire doing anything else.  Then, and to further complicate things, there is his beloved stamp collecting, which had already whittled away his original retirement fund.  For him to continue to collect stamps, he needs what he earns from killing.  Besides, stamp collection has the additional advantage of providing him with the “total absorption” that assists him to block out memories of his hits.

These conflicts do not paralyze Keller from completing his assignments during Hit Parade.  He manages to rack up a body count of some 16 persons and one dog (of all things).  Keller is his resourceful self, cleverly able to manipulate situations to set up his victim.  More often than not, the hits appear to be accidental.  And, even if not, Keller always manages to get away scot-free.  

Those who get to “march” in Hit Parade include a veteran baseball player, a retiree, a fellow stamp collector, the dog and a businessman. In some instances, Keller’s clients make fatal mistakes and became hits themselves.  Like one client who tries to short-change Keller and the co-clients who each also hired him separately to kill the other after paying him to target a third party.  Each of these unfortunate folks failed to realize that their target hated them at least as much and would also pay to put them away if the opportunity presented itself. Such mistakes leads to Keller reaping some sweet financial killings. And all in all, Keller makes out well financially with the Hit Parade hits, and he is even able to supplement his hit-man earnings at the racetrack (where he hedged his bet to come out ahead even if his horse lost) and on the stock market (by reversing a failed double-cross to his advantage).

Block is his usual masterful self in Hit Parade, conceiving and crafting extremely clever and brilliantly written stories.  He manages to make Keller a sympathetic character, despite his sociopathic qualities, even making him likeable albeit the despicably callous ways in which he conducts his business of killing (mostly) unknown people for unknown clients for unknown reasons.  It is yet another great read by one of the finest authors writing today.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 42 reviews

 



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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

Hard Case Crimes reprints:

Matthew Scudder Mysteries

Keller Series:

Bernie Rhodenbarr Mysteries (reprinted 2006)

Evan Tanner Mysteries (reprinted in 2007):

Writing as Paul Kavanagh

Nonfiction:

Movies from Books:

  • Nightmare Honeymoon (based on Deadly Honeymoon)
  • Eight Million Ways to Die (1985)
  • Burglar (loosely based on The Burglar in the Closet) (1987)
  • Keller (based on Hit Man)
  • A Walk Among the Tombstones

 

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Book Marks:

 

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About the Author:

Lawrence BlockLawrence Block was born in Buffalo, New York in 1938. He attended Antioch College in Ohio then went to work in the mailroom of a New York publisher. His first story was published in 1957 and since has written more than thirty novels and countless stories and articles, not just under his own name but also as Paul Kavanagh. Indeed Lawrence Block has had several pseudonyms having learned his writer's art crafting erotic literature as Andrew Shaw, Sheldon Lord and Jill Emerson.

His novels range from the urban noir of Matthew Scudder to the urbane effervescence of Bernie Rhodenbarr, while other characters include the globe-trotting insomniac Evan Tanner and the introspective assassin Keller (Hit List). He has published articles and short fiction in American Heritage, Redbook, Playboy, GQ, and The New York Times, and has published several collections of short fiction in book form, the most recent being his Collected Mystery Stories. Larry is a Grand Master of Mystery Writers of America. He has won the Edgar and Shamus awards four times and the Japanese Maltese Falcon award twice, as well as the Nero Wolfe award. In France, he has been proclaimed a Grand Maitre du Roman Noir and has twice been awarded the Societe 813 trophy. Most recently he was awarded the Crime Writers Association Cartier Diamond Dagger 2004 award, rarely awarded to American writers. He has been a guest of honor at Bouchercon and at book fairs and mystery festivals in France, Australia, Italy, New Zealand and Spain, and, as if that were not enough, was presented with the key to the city of Muncie, Indiana. He is a past president of the Private Eye Writers of America and the Mystery Writers of America.

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