by Lawrence Block
A review by Christopher Bolton
One doesn't ordinarily expect some of the most exciting moments of a crime novel to consist of a major character receiving constant, breathless updates from the literary agent who's selling his new novel to the highest-bidding publisher. But Lawrence Block's Small Town isn't strictly a crime novel it's as much a character piece and a portrait of a community as Richard Russo's Empire Falls, albeit with a higher body count. Only the most stringent genre-phobe would insist on stranding Small Town in the "ghetto" of crime fiction.
Small Town is an ensemble story about New York City in the aftermath of September 11th, 2001. The characters are in the process of reassembling their lives, unable to shake off the changes wrought by that tragic day and, in at least one instance, a shattered life is left in shards. Block's cast includes John Blair Creighton, a mid-list novelist who becomes the suspect in a murder and consequently sees his career skyrocket even as his freedom is less than assured; Frances Buckram, the former police commissioner of New York and an early favorite to run in the next mayoral election, if he can shake off his obsession with a serial killer called the Carpenter; and Susan Pomerance, the owner of an art gallery whose sexual awakening brings her into direct contact (in many, varied ways) with both men. There are other characters, among them a colorful defense attorney, an ex-addict who finds himself stumbling across one too many crime scenes, and a man who lost everything in the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and has consequently fallen into a homicidal mission to "save" his beloved city. To Block's credit, each one emerges as a distinct and memorable individual, even if a couple of them wind up dropping off by the end (most notably the ex-addict, who disappears entirely about halfway through).
Block's strong rendering of his large cast doesn't quite have Russo's unerring skill at drawing a fully fleshed character in only a couple of paragraphs; however, his characters grow on the reader and are a pleasure to revisit. For a crime novel, Small Town is relatively uneventful; sure, there's a serial killer loose, and the bodies pile up, but Block's interest is primarily in the psychology of his cast. Some of the book's most riveting moments involve the unexpected revival of Creighton's faltering writing career. The auction of his novel contains the suspense of Block's finer crime writing, coupled with an exhilaration that can only be conveyed by an insider who's been there (or been close to other writers who have).
The murders in Small Town are graphic and intense, as such scenes ought to be. Far more repulsive is the notion that an act of unspeakable violation should be rendered quaintly as in an Agatha Christie mystery, where the taking of life is a merely inconvenient affair to be tidied up before high tea. More to the point, the repercussions of these murders resonate throughout our cast, keeping the gruesome killings from feeling sensational or thrilling. Murder is an ugly business, especially as it's conducted in this novel, and one of Block's truly devious twists is to make his killer sympathetic even in the glare of his heinous crimes. Small Town ably demonstrates how violence begets violence, and one unspeakable act merely leads to another.
The sex is particularly noteworthy. Lawrence Block's reputation as a modern Grand Master of crime fiction is due primarily to several distinguished series, notably the Matthew Scudder mysteries and Bernie Rhodenbarr capers. But Block himself has admitted that he once paid the bills by writing pseudonymous erotic novels much of which, he's said, would barely qualify as soft-core porn by today's standards. Be forewarned: the sex scenes in Small Town streak past NC-17 and plunge gleefully into the well of hardcore. I could only laugh to myself to read the customer reviews on a certain online bookseller's web site, in which various naysayers complained about the horrible dirty sex but seemed to have no problem with the crushing of human skulls by a claw hammer. I'll be up front: I liked the sex. I liked that it was explicit. Readers who complain that sex scenes are there only for titillation may as well gripe that jokes are only there to make you laugh. Is there an emotion besides lust that requires additional justification to tap into? Well, as it happens, the "deviant" sex explains an awful lot about the characters who engage in said practices so there's justification, if any were required.
Small Town succeeds most admirably in my basic test of any writing. When I pick it up, am I drawn into it? And when I put it down, am I looking forward to my next opportunity to get into it again? More than a few relatively enjoyable books have gone unfinished because I put them down and never felt a compelling reason to pick them up again. Block gives us many compelling reasons to pick him up from his characters to his vivid setting (New York City comes alive in his hands), to the irresistible thrust of his plot and, very few reasons to put him down.