Lawrence Block, sympathetic villains, and Great Books Lists

June 7, 2009 at 1:36 am (books, Mystery fiction)

In one of my posts on favorite mysteries of 2008, I mentioned Lawrence Block’s new series, Keller’s Greatest Hits. I had listened to Hit Parade, read by the author, and found it extremely entertaining. In fact, it was one of the titles I chose to book talk this past Tuesday night at the “Great Summer Reads” panel.

This event, by the way, was well attended and enjoyed by all, including – perhaps especially! – the panelists themselves. Once again, I could only marvel at the skill of the book talkers of Howard County Library. Jean, Joanne, Beth, and Aimee were eloquent and impassioned, and their recommendations were varied and intriguing. Here are just a few that made it onto my own to-read (or listen- to) list:






Like the other presenters, I had just enough time to talk about my own “top five.”  Here’s my complete list:

FIRST GROUP- I planned to discuss these five:


IN DEFENSE OF FOOD – Michael Pollan

ABOUT FACE – Donna Leon

HIT PARADE – Lawrence Block



SECOND GROUP – To be discussed if time permitted, which it didn’t:



THE BIRTHDAY PRESENT – Barbara Vine/Ruth Rendell

THE GRAVING DOCK – Gabriel Cohen

BLACK SECONDS – Karin Fossum

THE DEMON OF DAKAR – Kjell Eriksson




(These have all been reviewed by me on this blog. Scroll down to find the search box on the right and type in the title.)

I deliberately saved Hit Parade for last. As I was waxing enthusiastic about Block’s new Keller series, I could feel a distinct chill descend on the room – the first and only time I had  noticed such a thing happening. As the evening drew to a close , an audience member came up to me and expressed his reservations regarding the premise of  Block’s novel: he was afraid some malefactor would use it as a manual for how to do away with people for profit.

Well. For a minute or two, I was speechless. The best spur of the moment response I could muster – finally –  was that Block was playing this premise strictly for laughs, and was in it for chiefly the  fun of  being deliciously subversive. I added that most of the scenarios he invents fall somewhere between highly unlikely and downright impossible. I sensed that my questioner was somewhat reassured, but not still entirely at ease in his mind. So I suggested what I thought was the most reasonable course of action: Read the book, and make up your own mind.

And thus the evening concluded.

But there is more…

As I was working on this post, I began casting about in my memory for examples of fictional protagonists who might, in some particulars, resemble John Paul Keller. I was looking, in other words, for sympathetic villains. Two examples came to mind immediately: Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost – “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven” – and Burke Devore in The Ax, by the late, great Donald Westlakeax (This novel has been in the news recently, a propos the current downturn in employment.)

Then I came across this rather interesting thread on the subject of sympathetic villains. Ultimately, though, I felt frustrated, because I felt that what I really needed was a large list of titles with which to jog my memory. And the first such list I managed to retrieve had me banging my forehead in amazement – of course! How could I have forgotten:

LolitaHumbert Humbert was one of the most reviled literary creations of the twentieth century, and there’s no doubt about it: it’s unnerving to find yourself laughing out loud while a reading about the exploits of a pedophile…

There are still those who find this novel revolting; they are, of course, entitled to their views. But I think it can be agreed that Nabokov was in no way advocating for an appalling type of behavior, any more than Lawrence Block is offering vocational guidance in the Keller’s Greatest Hits series. Both, I think, are being deliberately perverse and subversive, pushing the outer envelope of what’s acceptable in the realm of fiction while at the same time gaining secret (or not so secret) satisfaction by stoking the fires of controversy. (Here’s the Wikipedia entry on the publication history of Lolita.)

Lawrence Block, though a veteran and highly respected crime writer, does not have anything like the high profile enjoyed by Vladimir Nabokov at the time of the Lolita dustup. Still, the (admittedly minor) incident at the panel discussion did get me thinking about the question of literature and responsibility. It’s a big question, one that has no doubt been examined at length by others. Meanwhile, here are two videos of Lawrence Block in which he explains, in an admirably forthright manner I think, the genesis of the Keller character. The first one takes place at a reading and book signing at the legendary Greenwich Village Mystery Bookstore, Partners and Crime.


Lest I forget – again! – Great Books Lists is an outstanding  source for lists of classics and contemporary works, fiction and nonfiction – just about everything relating to books and excellence. We owe a debt of gratitude to Robert Teeter, a librarian in a California water agency, who maintains this site.


parade run Finally, one last word concerning Keller’s Greatest Hits. I just finished listening to Hit and Run, the fourth and latest entry in this series. Something utterly unprecedented happens to Keller right at the outset, and he finds himself suddenly on the run –  desperate, penniless, out of options and almost out of hope. Then he saves someone’s life, at some peril to himself, and his own life takes yet another wholly unexpected turn. I have to admit, I am on tenterhooks waiting to see what is going to happen next to this man. And yes – I really am rooting for him.

seven hurt I guess I’ll have to accept the fact that the Keller novels are not for everyone. I’m put in mind of my relentless espousal of The Horned Man by James Lasdun. This was a book that no one seemed to like but me! Ah well – I also liked Seven Lies by this author, though it didn’t have quite the impact on me that  the earlier title did. Lasdun has a short story collection coming out shortly; I am most eager to get my hands on it. In his ability to get deep inside a disturbed and seething mind and then write about it with complete conviction, Lasdun puts me in mind of the great Ruth Rendell.


  1. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] The Laughing Policeman – Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo Hit Parade and Hit and Run – Lawrence Block Thunder Bay – William Kent Krueger The Demon of Dakar – Kjell Eriksson Brat Farrar and […]

  2. End of summer crime fiction roundup: some good reading here « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] could not help comparing Derek Haas’s portrayal of a hit man with that of Lawrence Block in the Keller stories. In Hit Parade, Block went for the subversive and irreverent; the stories  were at times quite […]

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