Thursday, April 23, 2020

Review: Catch and Release

Catch and Release Catch and Release by Lawrence Block
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You know what I find soothing as I stay indoors during an international pandemic? Tales of crime and murder! Hey, don’t judge me. We’re all just trying to get through this.

I’ve long believed that Lawrence Block is one of our greatest crime writers, and I’ve read a ton of his books so I thought I was familiar with all his tricks and tropes. However, something I picked up on for the first time in this collection is just how often he delivers an absolute killer of a last line. Seriously, even if you see an ending or a twist coming he usually just CRUSHES that final sentence to deliver a solid jolt that is the perfect moment to end on. It’s like how a great comedian can keep you laughing for a whole bit, and then deliver the perfect punch line to end it on that leaves you howling.

This is a fairly eclectic collection that features stories with some of his most famous characters like the one that features Block himself having a conversation with bookseller/burglar Bernie Rhoedenbarr in A Burglar’s Eye View of Greed. Then there’s two stories featuring Matt Scudder with Mick Ballou Looks at a Blank Screen and One Last Night at Grogan’s. There’s also another tale, Clean Slate, that eventually got expanded in the novel Getting Off.

It’s not just Block doing his regular characters or familiar material. There’s several one off stories that like the titular Catch and Release about a fisherman who applies his fishing philosophy to his other hobby. A Chance to Get Even features a desperate poker player who doesn’t know when to quit. A fan takes his allegiance to a particular tennis player very seriously in A Vision in White, while Dolly’s Trash and Treasures gives us an inside look at the mind of a hoarder. How Far is a one act play that I’d love to see performed someday.

Welcome to the Real World will be extremely relatable to anyone who has ever shanked a golf ball into the woods. Part of the Job is good one with a nice hook, but Block explaining how it was discovered by a fan in an old magazine while he has no memory of writing or publishing it is more interesting than the story itself. Scenarios and Without a Body were my least favorites. They’re both fine, but both seem more about the gimmick in each story than anything particularly new or intriguing.

My favorites that don’t involve Matt Scudder are the matched pair Speaking of Greed and Speaking of Lust. A big part of the reason I like them is that they sound like the set-up to a joke. “A priest, a cop, a soldier, and a doctor were playing poker while a sleepy old man keeps farting…” Only instead of it being a joke it’s actually a framing device for each character to tell a story about greed and lust. Per Block’s explanation it was part of a plan to write a series based on the seven deadly sins, but he ran out of ideas after just those two. It’s a great set-up and each of the stories is intriguing in its own way with this poker game taking on a vaguely spooky and sinister air as things progress. I reminded me of a cool anthology TV series  like Twilight Zone.

The funny thing about why I read this is that somebody pointed out to Block on Twitter that the audio version he narrated was available on Spotify. Block wasn’t sure how or why it ended up on there, but he cheerfully promoted it, and I was happy to listen to him read me some tales as I was stuck at home. It was far more enjoyable than watching the news.

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