US: 978-0316127356, feb 2013
To readers like me, the name Lawrence Block is inextricably linked with Matthew Scudder, Block’s long-running PI protagonist, who makes New York his own, and whose adventures are as much about the city and Matt’s struggle with alcohol as they are about crime. But Block is one of those authors who likes to experiment, who likes to do different things. From his early erotica through the globe-spanning Tanner thrillers and on to more intriguing standalones like Small Town, Block doesn’t ever follow a predictable pattern.
Some of those other projects, some are weaker than others, but one of the more interesting of Block’s characters has always been Keller, the philately obsessed Hitman.
Keller is an odd character, and while the romantic notion of the hitman is of a man always in motion, Block bucks that trend by making Keller an introvert who always seems to be more comfortable with his stamps than with being in the thick of the action. He is just a guy who happens to be very good at something. And that something is killing people.
Last seen in Block’s HIT AND RUN, Keller is found living a new life with a new name and a new wife. He has left his old job behind, and is quite happy being with his family and seeking out new additions for his stamp collection. But this is a Block novel, and trouble is never far away. Keller, you see, has kept his old phone handy for reasons even he never quite seems to fathom. And when it rings, and his old handler, Dot, asks him to do one more job, he may protest, but it’s not long before he’s back in the game.
As with most Keller books, HIT ME is more a collections of novellas with a gently running theme than an actual novel. Keller moves from assignment to assignment, with small threads picking up between each individual segment. In this case, its Keller adjusting to his new life and the way in which his wife deals with the revelation about her husband’s past (hint: it’s not quite the reaction you’d expect; its far more interesting than that).
Keller’s stillness and interest in philately are great counterpoints to the nastiness of his job, and help explain how he is able to do what he does and still be a “nice guy”. He’s one of those people who can compartmentalise the world, and still comes out of doing what he does with empathy.
There are no end-of-the-world stakes here, merely small, occasionally violent episodes that cleverly reveal more about the kind of business Keller deals in and how even the most unlikely people can be pulled into his world. Block is at his best when he’s dealing with the small details of his character’s lives, although Keller’s interest in obtaining certain rare stamps can border on the obsessive (I’m not much of a stamp collector myself, but clearly Block is!) and occasionally slow the pace down just a tad. However, there’s more than enough emotional and narrative interest here to keep you turning those pages. Through it all, the conflicting realities of Keller’s internal calm and the external chaos of his work remain absolutely fascinating.
Although my first love will always be Scudder, I have always applauded Block’s willingness to try new things and approach different character types in his fiction. Keller is intriguing enough in his own right, and Block gives him plenty of interest in this latest book, along with some fascinating new assignments (although he’s at his most interesting trying to get back into the game, recalling old muscles he let go slack), and his relationship with his Handler, Dot, remains an absolute highlight. If you didn’t like Keller before, this won’t change your mind, but if you did, you’re going to love his return. And if you’ve never tried one of Block’s Keller books, you should consider picking this one up. You might just get a kick (or a hit) out of it.
Russel D McLean for crimescenescotland 16/01/13