Friday, July 22, 2011

Friday Guest Post: PRETTY BOY FLAWED (by Lawrence Block)

(not by) Russel D McLean

I remember my dad giving me a book. This was when I was first getting into crime fiction. The book he handed to me was called 8 MILLION WAYS TO DIE. "You'll love it," he said. "Its part of a whole series about a detective in New York." I was, admittedly, a little skeptical, already beginning to realise how certain crime novels could start to blend into each other. Then he said: "But while the crime's intriguing, really the whole series is about New York itself. And alcoholism." I was intrigued enough to look. And I was glad I did, because the Matthew Scudder books have been a huge influence on my own work and I remain, to this day, a fervent fan of the works of one Mr Lawrence Block.

Which brings me to today's guest post. I'm in Harrogate just now, living it up with the UK crime brigade, and so I thought I'd try and arrange a guest post. I didn't in a million years reckon that I'd be able to bag one of my favourite eye-writers to do it. But somehow, ladies and gentlemen, we have managed to procure for you a true legend of the crime writing world to do some damage this Friday. Of course, the man himself has admitted this post is not without its flaws, but I guess you're just going to have to read on to see what he means. So, ladies and gentlemen, without any further pre-amble (as I write this I'm late for my lift to Harrogate), I give you, Mr Lawrence Block:


By Lawrence Block

Critics and reviewers like to point out that the characters I write about have flaws. It’s not hard to see what they’re getting at. Matthew Scudder, the narrator and protagonist of seventeen novels to date, begins as a good two-fisted drinker, and by the fifth book he’s in the grip of full-blown alcoholism.

He sobers up, and not a moment too soon, but not getting plastered doesn’t make him a plaster saint. He’s had a few girlfriends over the years, though I have to say I was bemused when one reviewer spoke disparagingly of Scudder’s womanizing. Now that’s a hard enough word to use in any circumstances without sounding like a perfect twit, but I was appalled to hear it applied to Scudder. If I had to guess, I’d say that the lad who wrote those lines hasn’t been getting much.

Still, it’s true that the man cheated on his call girl girlfriend, Elaine, with his winsome widowed client, Lisa. Then he married the one and went on seeing the other. That’s a pretty serious flaw. And it seems to me there was something else, but what was it?

Oh, right. His best friend is a career criminal. And sometimes, when the law doesn’t appear to work as he thinks it should, he’s not above taking it into his own hands. A couple of times he’s killed people, and it hasn’t always been in self-defense, or in the heat of battle.

Or consider Bernie Rhodenbarr. He’s a nice enough fellow, literate and personable. Old ladies and dogs take to him, and he runs a secondhand bookstore, for heaven’s sake, and he’s even got a stubtailed cat named Raffles. You’d be glad to have him over for dinner, but afterward you’d count your spoons.

Because, see, the habit he can’t seem to break is one of letting himself into other people’s houses and stealing their things. He knows a lot about art and collectibles, and part of his knowledge includes where to sell it without having to furnish proof of ownership. He’s a burglar, for God’s sake, and he’s been one for ten books already, and if that’s not a flaw, what is?

Well, how about killing strangers for a living? That’s what Keller does. He’s been in four books so far, and the body count is really getting up there. Aside from that, he’s a pretty decent fellow, a sort of Urban Lonely Guy of assassins.

He winds up being a guilty pleasure for a lot of readers, who like him more than they think they should. Women in particular are crazy about Keller, and are ready to take him by the arm and pick out drapes, and names for their kids. Some of them try telling themselves that he only kills people who deserve it, but that’s not true at all. Hey, he’d kill you if somebody paid him to. (Well, not you, but that other lady over there. He’d never kill you.)

So it’s not as though I’m arguing that my protagonists are perfect beings, that they’ve built up enough good karma in countless reincarnations to be subsumed into the next world and absorbed into the infinite goodness of the universe. I don’t rule it out, but it strikes me as unlikely.

But does that make them flawed?

I’ll tell you, I don’t much care for that word. It suggests that they’d be much better off without these flaws, and we’d be better off ourselves for knowing them. Why, if only they managed to overcome these flaws, then they’d be perfect. And wouldn’t that be wonderful?

Matt’s already come a long ways, now that he’s given up the drink and made an honest woman of Elaine. And he hasn’t been catting around on her lately, or if he has he’s kept it to himself, so at least we don’t have to know about it. Now if only he could stop hanging out with that reprobate Mick Ballou. . .

And Keller. Why, all he has to do is fine another way to make a living. He’s a stamp collector, so why doesn’t he give up homicide for hire and set up shop as a dealer in rare stamps? It may seem like a tame life in comparison to his old profession, but there ought to be enough drama and excitement in the life of a professional philatelist to keep readers turning those pages.

And Bernie. He keeps telling us he knows stealing stuff is reprehensible and he yearns to give it up. Well, duh, what are you waiting for, Bern? Give it up! Run the bookstore. Go straight home after work instead of boozing it up at the Bum Rap with your pal Carolyn. And who knows, if you can set a good example by giving up burglary, maybe she’ll see the error of her ways and give up being a lesbian. I mean, the two of you could get married, you could have kids, you could move to Armonk and run the book business over the Internet. You’ll love it in the suburbs. All that fresh air, all those healthy people—you know what? It wouldn’t surprise me if Raffles the cat grows his tail back. Who’s to say it couldn’t happen?

Oh, I exaggerate, do I? After the publication of Bernie’s fourth adventure, The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza, I got a copy in the mail from a disgruntled reader. “This is my last Burglar book,” the accompanying note advised me. “I find it unacceptable that, after four books, a presumably intelligent hero would not have grown enough to renounce his criminal ways and reform.”

Now I’m not generally quick to take umbrage, but there was an abundance of umbrage there for the taking, and I helped myself to a double armful of the stuff. “You mucking foron,” I wrote, approximately. “Either way it’s your last Burglar book, because if Bernie reforms the series is done.”

And who on earth wants to read about a perfect person? I haven’t come across too many in real life, but they turn up all too often in fiction, always doing the right thing, always taking the right path, always putting the needs of others ahead of their own. Empty suits is what they are, empty suits of armor. And untarnished in the bargain.

I don’t want to read about them. And I certainly don’t want to write about them, and couldn’t if I did. Because I wouldn’t know how.

But I still don’t like that word.


It makes my peeps sound defective. Like they’re somehow less than. Like there’s something wrong with them. Like they need fixing.

The hell with that.

Fortunately, there’s a better word. I had to get away from readers and writers to find it. So I went up to West Forty-seventh Street and walked amongst jewelers, and there I learned what the call the wee imperfection within a gemstone.

They call it an inclusion.

An inclusion! Isn’t that better? Isn’t it, like, tons better? Damn right it is. My characters don’t have flaws or blemishes or defects. They have inclusions.

They’re not missing anything. No, they’ve got something extra, something that puts them a step ahead of those flawless perfect nobody-home cardboard heroes.

They’ve got inclusions They’ve got what the other guys have, and more. Something additional. Something included.

Makes me proud of them, looking at ’em that way. Makes me want to sit down right now and start writing something about one of them. I’m not sure which one I’ll pick, and I might strike out in a new direction and embark on an adventure with a brand-new character. But if I do, I know one thing about him from the jump.

He’ll be a man with inclusions.


Lawrence Block’s most recent book is A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF, a novel about Matthew Scudder, Man of Inclusions. In September Hard Case Crime will bring out as its first-ever hardcover original GETTING OFF, a novel of sex and violence, by Lawrence Block writing as Jill Emerson. Its heroine is an endearing young woman whose mission in life is to pick up men, go home with them, enjoy great and fulfilling sex with them…and then kill them. Some might say she has issues. LB says she’s got inclusions, and he loves her just the way she is.


Nigel Bird said...

Here's to inclusion.

Great to see you here, Mr B. I love all the guys you mention in the post just the way they are.

Inclusion. I'm there with you in principle, but to get it to stick, there'd be a lot of explaining. For me, and it's my job in part, inclusion means helping a child who has exceptional needs access the mainstream curriculum, so it doesn't work for me in that sense.

Human might be a fair label - that they are (at least on paper) human is hard to disput and I reckon the whole race has their 'inclusions'.

Flawed might not be the word you'd choose, but it sure made a great title.


And good luck in Harrogate, Russel. Wish I were there. Maybe next year I'll turn up for some of the events.


Thomas Pluck said...

They got Enthusiasms!

Mr. Block, you're one funny son of a gun. It's true, many writers have gone the easier route and made their character's "flaw" the ability to do the right thing, even if it's against their own self-interest. Better to be like America in the words of Churchill, and do the right thing after exhausting all the other possibilities. At least that's interesting.

And I'm glad you right out and said that Keller- a damn funny name for a killer if there ever was one- would kill us for a rare stamp and never lose any sleep. If he starts getting morals he'd have to change his name.

Al Tucher said...

Damn. These insights always come too late. I have several exes I'd like to tell, "You were wrong. I have inclusions."

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