Saturday, April 01, 2006

Lawrence Block's Cinderella Sims

Reader Peter Logan has asked me to blog “the article you did on Lawrence Block.”  By that I guess you mean the piece I wrote introducing his novel Cinderella Sims.  Peter also mentiond that he’s tried to get into my old blog.  The blogmaster assured me that it would never be taken down when I made the switch.  Of the hundred some pieces I wrote, there were a few I wanted to save for myself.  But the blog vanished.  Sorry.

The introduction to Cinderella Sims, by Ed Gorman.    (Subterranean Press, 2003)

Lawrence Block (1938-) writes the best sentences in the business, that business being crime fiction.  No tortured self-conscious arty stuff, either.  Just pure, graceful, skilled writing of a very high order.

No matter what he writes – the dark Scudder private-eye novels; the spunky Bernie Rhodenbarr’s about the kind of thief even a mom could love; or his latest creation, John Keller the hitman, an existential figure full of quirks and kindnesses rare in his profession – no matter what he’s telling us, he always makes it sweet to read.  He’s just so damned nimble and graceful and acute with his language.

By now, his story is pretty well known.  Wrote a lot of erotica in the late fifties and early sixties, all the while writing his early crime paperback originals and stories for magazines of every kind.  Started becoming a name in crime fiction in the seventies, really broke out in the nineties and is now posed, one would think, for superstardom.

Block has always reminded me of a very intelligent fighter.  He knows what he’s good at and sticks to his own fight, un-moved by popular fads and critical fancies.  He writes about women as well as any male writer I’ve every read (though since I’m a guy, I may just be saying that he perceives women the same way I do) and he deals with subjects as Oprah-ready as alcoholism and failed fatherhood realistically, yet without resorting to weepiness.

One senses in him sometimes a frustrated mainstream writer.  He’s always pushing against the restrictions of form and yet never failing to give the reader what he came for in the first place.  No easy trick, believe me.

For some reason, I’ve always hated the word “wordsmith” (probably because it’s popular among pretentious young advertising copywriters who don’t want to admit that they’re writing hymns to beer and dish soap), but that’s what Block is.  A singer of songs, a teller of tales, a bedazzler.

I read three of his erotic novels and I’ll tell you something.  They’re better written (and we’re talking 1958-1961) than half the contemporary novels I read today.  He was pushing against form even back then, creating real people and real problems, and doing so in a simple powerful voice that stays with you a hell of a long time.

I wrote the above as a way of setting up a Larry Block novelette I was reprinting in an anthology of pulp stories.  I don’t see any reason to change a word.  Not because they’re such graceful or pithy words but because they convey my feelings about Lawrence Block the writer.

I always say that I’m glad to see writers make it up from the trenches and into the sunshine of national prominence.  Few writers spent so long in the trenches.  Larry sold his first story in 1958.  He first hit big in the middle 1990s.  That’s a long time to breathe the dusty, sometimes dank air of literary obscurity.

Larry began his career, as most of us know by now, selling short stories to the crime magazines of the time and to the sort of paperbacks that local religious groups were always trying to drive from the newsstands.

We called these, as I recall, the motley crew of outcasts I hung with in my early college years, right-handers.  Suggesting that this type of book inspired one to a certain kind of action few other books did.  Except maybe for Peyton Place and its imitators.  The underlined passages.

I read a lot of Midwood and Beacon and Nightstand novels in those days.  I quickly came to realize that some of the writers were much better than others.  Max Collier, for example, wrote some of the most perverse books I’ve ever read.  As I remember them, he frequently paired up his bitter hunchbacked heroes with heiresses.  Clyde Allison was usually thin on plot but great with patter.  Orrie Hitt sometimes got too perverse for my tastes but usually supplied a kind of second-rate James T. Farrell-like blue collar take on the standard “sexy” plots.

And when I say “sexy” I mean “sexy” in the way of the movie comedies of the 1950s and early 1960s. Short on actual details but long on suggestion.  And metaphor.  Orgasms were frequently portrayed as “searing volcanoes”or some such.

A few of the right-handers were written reasonably well.  No great masterpieces slipped through, you understand, but some of the books were actually ... kinda sorta actual novels rather than just the usual monthly tease.

Which brings us to some guy named Andrew Shaw.

This was one of Larry Block’s pen-name circa 1959-1961.  Other writers would share the name later on (someday somebody will do an article on how contracts to one writer secretly get handed off by that writer to another writer, a particular form of “ghosting” that goes on at the lower levels of publishing even today) but the early Shaws, at least those I’ve read, read like Larry Block.

Not the Larry Block of today.  The Shaw prose isn’t especially polished; the Shaw stories don’t always escape cliche; and the Shaw attitude is not unlike the hardboiled crime fiction magazines of the day –  i.e., too tough for its own good.

And yet.

Yet you can can see in glimpses – and sometimes sustained for long stretches –  the Larry Block of today.  The idiosyncratic take on modern morality; the dour irony that hides fear and loneliness; and the seeds-just planted-of the style that would become the best of his generation.

Cinderella Sims was originally called $20 Lust.  The editor obviously spent a long time coming up with that one.

I’m not sure what else Larry was writing at that time.  I suspect he was upgrading for an assault on Gold Medal and better-paying markets.  I say this because Cinderella Sims seems to fall between his sexy books and his early Gold Medal books.  Not quite worthy of that little gold medallion but damned close.

One thing Larry Block always had was the ability to move a story forward while giving you detailed character sketches.  He has a fast eye for the unusual, the quirks in us, and he makes us come alive with these details.  That skill is already apparent in the novel you’re holding.

So is his skill in giving you journalistic snapshots of urban American.  Re-reading Cinderella Sims today is like traveling back in time to that pre-hippie sixties when crew cuts were still the style on college campuses and free love was something only the ridiculous Hugh Hefner experienced.

I’m not going to tell you that this is a great book because it isn’t.  But it’s a damned interesting look at the artist-in-making.  I think you’ll agree with me that, from the very beginning of his career, Larry Block was a vital and powerful storyteller.

                  YOUR COMMENTS ARE WELCOME.      

Return to the Ed Gorman index page.

  Return to the Mystery*File  Main Page.