Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Review: Dead Girl Blues

Dead Girl Blues Dead Girl Blues by Lawrence Block
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free copy of this from the author for review.

This is a great book, but also a fairly tough read.

That’s not because there’s a graphic account of a shocking crime in the opening chapter although anyone who picks this up should be aware that they are in for one dark ride. And it’s certainly not because of the writing because this is Lawrence Block we’re talking about it, and that guy could make a lawnmower maintenance manual a page turner.

What makes it uncomfortable is that it asks some tough questions. Like does committing one terrible crime make a person evil even if they go on to be an upstanding citizen for the rest of their life? I suspect that a lot of people would be inclined to chalk it up to youth or one bad decision made in the heat of the moment.

The wrinkle here is that the first person narrator isn’t holding back, and we know exactly just how much he enjoyed the act as well as how he continues to fantasize about it for years afterwards. There’s no guilt, nor any empathy for the victim. In fact, it seems like the main reason he doesn’t do it again is that he feels like he was lucky to get away with it once so deliberately holds himself in check.

However, it isn’t exactly as black and white on the part of the main character, and the tricky thing that Block pulls off here is putting us in this guy’s head for an entire book so that you understand him. I’m not saying that you sympathize with him. That’s nigh on impossible after that first chapter. Yet, you do get a feel for how he’s just one of those people who has a head full of bad wiring, and there’s something to be said for his self-awareness that makes no excuses or rationalizations. While he originally drifts onto the path that becomes his new life as an average Joe, he also deliberately makes choices to make that happen and is careful to avoid putting himself in a position where he may not be able to help doing it again.

So again, while we’re dealing with a monster, he knows he’s a monster, and he’s not giving in to his worst impulses. Does it matter that his reasons for behaving himself are still driven by self-interest?

If you ask that question then you also need to consider how many seemingly decent people only obey the rules out of fear of getting caught. The narrator discusses many other crimes he sees in the news, and one that catches his attention is the story of a man who killed a woman years ago and went on to live a seemingly normal life and never did it again. So it makes you wonder just how many people you see walking around your neighborhood who may have left a body in a shallow grave in the woods.

Block also makes good use of some recent resolutions of real cold cases to add in a feeling that the curtain is coming down on the main character after decades of getting away with it. His thoughts and plans about what he might do if he feels like he’s finally caught are bone chilling and go in a surprising direction that add more uneasiness about what so-called average people might do in similar circumstances.

The only quibble I have with the book is that I’m not entirely sure that the timeline holds up if you start thinking about the age of the narrator and other characters in relation to him at certain points, but that’s minor nitpicking in an otherwise fascinating book.

Again, this might not be for all crime fiction fans because there are parts that are tough sledding. It might not even be for all Lawrence Block fans. He seems to be very aware of that, and he posted an interesting account of how he came to write and publish this one. It certainly shocked me at the start, and then surprised me even more with different direction the book takes after that. In the end it’s a meditation on dark impulses and trying to live with them that is going to haunt me for a good long while.

Some people have already noted that this is one of Block’s best books, and you can add me to that list.

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