Thursday, April 02, 2015

The Crime of Our Lives - Lawrence Block

Nobody breaks me out of a reading funk—that feeling of vague dissatisfaction and the inability to find anything you really want to read despite having books piled around you—better than Lawrence Block. I found myself edging in the direction of a funk the other day, and what should come along just in time but THE CRIME OF OUR LIVES, Block's new non-fiction collection.

Ed Gorman likes to say that Lawrence Block writes the best sentences in the business. Ed is no slouch in that area himself, and I think a lot of writers, myself included, come up with some pretty good sentences here and there. But Ed's right, no one makes it look as effortless as Block, and no one can do it anywhere near as consistently, either.

THE CRIME OF OUR LIVES is a collection of essays and introductions to various books, a few autobiographical but mostly about other authors of crime and mystery fiction. Some of the writers Block talks about are Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Donald Westlake, Evan Hunter, Robert B. Parker, Mary Higgins Clark, Ross Thomas, Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford, and Mickey Spillane. (I use the phrase "talks about" deliberately, because in many ways reading this book is like sitting down and having an entertaining, informative conversation with Block.) Other sections are devoted to authors who maybe aren't as well-known these days, such as Frederic Brown, and some who are almost forgotten, for example Henry Kane. There are also several pieces about Scott Meredith and his literary agency where Block was first an employee and then a client.

(If I can intrude with a personal story—and I can, since it's my blog—after I had written my first novel in the fall and winter of 1977-78, I sent it around to various publishers, knowing the odds of selling it were slim without an agent, but I didn't know any agents at the time and hadn't quite figured out how to find one. I was just a good ol' boy in a small town in Texas. But after several swift rejections, I came across an ad in WRITER'S DIGEST about how the Scott Meredith Literary Agency was looking for manuscripts. Now, I knew that name because I had seen it on the copyright pages of many mystery novels I'd read—"Published by arrangement with Scott Meredith Literary Agency"—and thought, wouldn't it be great to be represented by Scott Meredith? If I could get him to take on my book, how could I possibly go wrong? Of course, there was a reading fee involved, $200 as I recall, and that was a lot of money in those days, but it seemed like a worthwhile investment...

Lawrence Block knows where this story is going, and you probably do, too. I sent the manuscript off, along with a check, and got a letter back a couple of weeks later, a detailed letter several pages long, telling me how my book was good, but just not quite good enough, and the problems it had were too ingrained to be overcome, so I'd be well-advised to start over and write another book, and if I did, and sent it in with another couple of hundred bucks, I stood a good chance of breaking in and becoming a client of the Scott Meredith Literary Agency. And it was signed by the man himself, the same guy whose name I'd seen in all those novels I'd read!

Needless to say, I never became a client, but the book eventually sold and can be purchased on Amazon this very day, in either trade paperback or e-book edition, whichever you prefer. I've often wondered over the years, after reading Lawrence Block's reminiscences in other places about Scott Meredith and how his agency operated, just who really wrote that letter to me back in 1978.)

I've gotten far off track from the purpose of this post, which is to tell you just how enjoyable THE CRIME OF OUR LIVES is and how it's one of the best books I've read so far this year. You won't find a better collection about mystery fiction and the people who write it. This one gets my highest recommendation.


Neil A. Waring said...

I am a huge fan. Love the Burgler books.

Todd Mason said...

I'm sorry, James...I wrote that letter. (SMLA was hiring a lot of 13yos, working from home in New Hampshire, in those years. I don't miss the old days.)

James Reasoner said...

Todd, really? That is absolutely cool! I thought maybe Barry Malzberg did (which would have also been cool), but I wasn't sure when he worked at SMLA. I love the Internet.

Todd Mason said...

I believe it's chronologically though not too statistically possible that Barry wrote your letter, since I think he was in and out the door at SMLA at various points in the '70s...but he could certainly pin down the dates if you ask him...possibly even dig out the file and tell you exactly who, though that might be tough or impossible at this point.