Book Review: Dead Girl Blues by Lawrence Block

Lawrence Block's new novel is not for everyone. Nor is Block's protagonist, who commits an unspeakable crime. But it's what he does with the rest of his life that's really interesting...

Lawrence Block has been writing for over sixty years, and he’s written everything from parlor mysteries solved by an affable burglar to the hardest of hard-boiled detective fiction starring Matt Scudder. Additionally, he has published a few bushels of memorable short stories including an Edgar winner only a few years ago, and a series about a hitman who is both sociopathic and damn good company—at least on the page. Now, after he’s given each of his beloved characters a capstone, he’s written a book that he’s decided to publish himself, for his own reasons. Rather than paraphrase the man’s words—a foolish endeavor when he has such a way with them—I’ll share the article he suggests you read before picking up his latest book

You can read that now, or at your leisure, or never, and still enjoy Dead Girl Blues, as I did. But be warned, this is the darkest journey he’s taken us on since the double whammy of Matt Scudder novels All the Flowers are Dying and Hope to Die. Block has a knack for writing the psychopath, inhabiting the mind of the human predator who walks among us and only shows his true face when it will be the last thing a victim ever sees:

THIS IS WHERE a person would say, And then everything went black. Or maybe red, like looking at the world through blood.

 

Or, And that’s the last thing I remember.

 

Maybe they’re telling the truth, maybe everything goes black for them, maybe that’s really the last thing they remember.

 

Different for me. You could say it’s the first thing I remember. Pulling into the roadhouse lot, ordering the beer, buying her the drink—those are hazy memories, filled in with my knowledge of what must have happened.

 

But the minute the lights went out for her was the minute they came on for me. 

 

Thus begins the latest novel from Lawrence Block, with a drifter in a roadhouse committing an unforgivable crime. And what makes it uniquely a Block novel is that it never goes where you expect. This isn’t a serial killer novel or like anything I’ve read before. The closest it comes to is Charles Willeford—who Block knew, and wrote about here in detail—as a sociopath moves among us and changes his colors like a chameleon, and keeps them for so long he isn’t sure if he’s a still a leopard underneath his spots.

That article about Willeford asks, “Can a self-diagnosed sociopath be at the same time an intensely moral person?” And Dead Girl Blues is in some ways an exploration of the answer. In my mind, it forms a loose trilogy with his novels Getting Off, where Kit Tolliver decides to “re-virginize” herself by killing every man she’s had sex with, and The Girl with the Deep Blue Eyes, which takes a familiar noir tale of sex, jealousy, and murder, and tweaks it in a very daring fashion. That remains one of my favorite crime novels because it takes the moral compass we’ve carried with us since our time in the Scouts and hurls it into the sea.

It’s easy to see two lovers bonding over a crime and defending one another to the bitter end. In Dead Girl Blues, he takes a bolder tack. I don’t want to spoil the suspense of a novel that depends on it. I’ll admit that at first, I balked; then I remembered how many people in the news behaved exactly the same way, to my infuriation. 

There are expectations in crime fiction. Our genre has been called the most conservative, in part because of the description of the detective as a moral policeman who brings the world back to order after the chaos of murder. Want to polarize the audience? Write a brilliant novel such as In the Woods, with an ambiguous ending. We are often the crowd swarmed around the gibbet, eager for blood. 

What Lawrence Block does with Dead Girl Blues is perhaps what he does best: he tells us a story in the mellifluous voice we’ve been reading for decades, one that’s made us laugh and then takes us on a tour of hell, giving us the most chillingly honest depiction of a sociopath and his family ever put to print. They discuss things that I’ve heard after dinner in a dimly lit restaurant, or by the fire at a friend’s house over drinks, but never on the page. Until now. At a time when a book can rarely captivate me for more than a chapter before I check the news for the latest horror, I read Dead Girl Blues in two sittings, rapt. That’s saying something. If it turns out to be his last book, it would be a capstone to an incredible career. But I hope it’s just another damn good book from Block.

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