Tour’s Books Blog

November 6, 2009

Book Review: Hit and Run by Lawrence Block

  • Title: Hit and Run
  • Author: Lawrence Block
  • Type: Action thriller
  • Genre: Assassin/hit man
  • Sub-genre: Keller series
  • My Grade: C (3*)
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Where Available: Wherever books are sold
  • FTC Disclosure: purchased from and online bookstore

Lawrence Block, a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America, is one of the best mystery thriller writers with a wide range of styles.  His dark and often grim Matt Scudder books are some of the best hardboiled PI books out there.  His Bernie Rhodenbarr ‘Burglar”books have a sense of humor involving his thief with a conscience in various mysteries.  He even wrote a government agent series featuring Evan Tanner back in the day.  Less well known than Matt Scudder or Bernie Rhodenbarr is hit man for hire, John Keller, the star of his 4 ‘Hit’ books.  Unfortunately, Hit and Run wasn’t his best work.  An oddly introspective and amoral tale of a hit man who gets setup to take the fall for a political assassination he didn’t commit is a bit Point of Impact, but Keller isn’t as sure, or sly, as Bob Lee Swagger, but he is less moral.

John Keller gets works as an assassin, having started in the trade as a young man working for a local mob boss, he now freelances and Dot is  his ‘agent’ and confidant.  She also handles his money and investments.  Keller is looking at retirement and so is Dot, but he decides to take one last job for an odd client, Call me Al, in Des Moines.  He has a bad feeling about it from the start and then the delays have him uneasy.  The man who picked him up at the airport – Hairy Ears – offers him 2 guns, and automatic and a revolver.  He also gives him a cell phone and leaves him with a car and a suggestion for trying the patty melt on rye at the Denny’s across the street.  Keller ditches the phone under the mattress in the room he never uses, walks across the street, does try the patty melt, calls a cab and returns to the airport where he rents his own car and finds a different hotel.  While waiting, he indulges in his one passion – stamp collecting.  He’s in a small stamp shop in a man’s house, having just spent the bulk of his available cash to buy 5 special stamps when the radio breaks in with the story of the assassination of the governor of Ohio – in Des Moines.  Immediately Keller realizes that he had a good reason to feel antsy about this job.  He’s about to become a fall guy.  Pretty soon, a decent likeness of him is all over national TV and he’s a hunted man on the run.

Nearly a hundred pages go by as Keller drives from Des Moines to NYC – killing an old man in a gas station who recognizes him and tries for a citizens arrest.  All you have are the mental musing of Keller.  As he gets near NYC and buys a New York Times, he reads about a fire on Long Island – at Dot’s address.  A woman’s body, shot twice in the head, is found in the burnt out remains.  It was arson, and an amateur job, but with Dot gone, so is his $2.5 million retirement money.  Suddenly, his apartment in NYC doesn’t seem so safe.  But he wants his stamps.  He enters his building and goes up, unsurprised to find his place a wreck – and all his stamps gone.  He grabs some clean clothes, a stash of hidden money, and heads out, eventually landing in New Orleans.  While walking back to his car at he hears a woman scream.  Initially, he plans to walk on, but he can’t and goes into the park to find a man trying to rape a woman.  He drags him off and ends up breaking his neck.  She recognizes Keller, but he convinces her she’s in no danger.  Perhaps the most discerning moment occurs as he walks her home and speaks openly saying,

“Ever since the assassination in Des Moines, ever since I saw a picture of myself on CNN, I’ve been running.  Driving around, sleeping in my car, sleeping in cheap motels, sleeping in movie theaters. The only person I ever really cared about is dead and the possession I treasured is gone.  All of my life I always figured things would work out and I’d get by, and for years they did, and I did, and it feels like the string has pretty much played out.  Sooner or later I’ll slip up, or sooner or later they’ll get lucky, and they’ll catch up with me.  And the only good thing about that is I’ll get to stop running.”

Hit and Run is Mr Block’s coda for John Keller, an assassin whose time has past.  A dinosaur who not only wants to retire, but needs to.  Keller finds really likes living in New Orleans with Julia.  She accepts what he was and encourages what he’s becoming.  It’s also about Keller discovering things about himself and abilities he never knew, like he has a talent for working with his hands and gets a lot of satisfaction from doing it for a living.  But loose ends crop up and Keller has to take care of them.  That was the least satisfying part because it seemed so empty.  We never do get to learn anything much about the man who set it all up, but he’ll never do it again.

Like all of Lawrence Block’s work, Hit and Run was very readable, but it was tedious as well.  This might be in part because the action was widely spaced between long periods of introspection by Keller as he adjusts to his new circumstances and slowly begins a whole new life.  But I’m inclined to think it’s more than that – more a relative thing.  Keller was an old fashioned hit man from the 70’s.  Today we have John Rain as the prototypical assassin.  The technical savvy and sprawling stage of those thrillers serves to make Keller seemed hopelessly out of date.  Some of Block’s biting humor shows through now and then, but mostly, like any coda, this is a long farewell to an old friend.

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