I felt in need of some light – or lighter, at any rate – reading. A book that would chase away ‘the old ennui’ and make me smile. That would not make too many heavy demands on my intellect. So where did I turn? Lawrence Block‘s stories about the adventures and misadventures of a hit man are written with tongue firmly in cheek. Keller, the eponymous protagonist, first appeared in short stories. Then the stories were collected in single volumes. Then they lengthened into novels. But, as can readily be seen from Hit Me, these novels retain the episodic quality of the stories. I think this works extremely well. It means the plot, or plots, never get too complicated and thus retain their narrative momentum. They also provide scope for Block’s wonderfully written dialog. In addition, we’re made privy to the thoughts that occupy Keller as he awaits the arrival of an intended victim:
Keller had read somewhere that all of man’s difficulties stemmed from his inability to sit alone in a room. The line stayed with him, and a while ago he’d Googled his way to its source. Someone named Pascal had made the observation, Blaise Pascal, and it turned out he’d said a lot of other interesting things as well, but all but the first one had slipped Keller’s mind. He thought of it now as he forced himself to sit alone in the maid’s room, waiting for Portia Walmsley to come home.
(Like his creator, Keller possesses a lot of what I’d call hidden erudition.)
It’s one of the perverse triumphs of these stories that Keller emerges as an oddly likeable guy. It is odd, one must admit, given the nature of his work. He may be a killer for hire, but he’s beset by many of the same anxieties and insecurities from which we all suffer. And yes, he does suffer occasional pangs of conscience. Also, he yearns for love and the comforts that a family would provide; latterly, he actually does acquire those precious attributes of a rewarding life. But can he hold on to them and still pursue his ruthless, if highly remunerative, profession? Should he look for another line of work altogether? Time will tell….
Whatever his choice of vocation, Keller avidly pursues a passionate vocation. It is the collecting of postage stamps, and you could say that it pursues him rather than the other way around. This is the third Keller book I’ve read – the fifth in the series – and I feel that there is far more stamp lore in this one than in the previous two. Philately is the kind of specialty that can easily afflict the unbeliever with glazed eyes and cognitive shutdown, but Block always stops short of indulging in that degree of detail.
At any rate, it’s a sideline that affords Keller a welcome distraction from the matters at hand – matters that must be dealt with, one way or another. Keller gets these assignments from a woman called Dot. You could say, using spy parlance, that she’s his handler. But Keller is more free than most agents of espionage are to decline a given task. Dot has the connections to shop it elsewhere. In Hit Me, Keller’s proposed “hits’ range from an angry husband’s wife and her lover, the abbot of a monastery (hence the “felonious monk” in the title of this post), and a fourteen-year-old boy. This last precipitates a crisis. Keller has always drawn the line at doing away with children for whatever reason (and the reason in this case is purely venal anyway). He comes up with a better idea.
In this video, Lawrence Block discusses Hit and Run (fourth in the series) and the strangeness of readers’ reactions to Keller.