How to Write a Thriller, Post–9-11


That was the thing about New York—if you loved it, if it worked for you, it ruined you for anyplace else in the world. —Lawrence Block, Small Town

With 8 million stories in the naked city, New York has inspired more books
than any other American burg. And when it comes to crime, one author
stands out as king of the hill and top of the heap: Lawrence Block. “New York energizes my work,” says the prolific Block, a Mystery Writers of
America Grand Master, whose novels about dogged ex-cop–turned–private-eye Matthew Scudder span 30 years in the life of the changing metropolis, roving from Irish speakeasies in Hell’s Kitchen to the gay nightclubs of Chelsea.

“There’s nobody writing now who writes about New York like Block does,” notes Tom Cushman, manager of the mystery bookstore Murder Ink. “In his books, the city is usually the co-star, if not the star itself.” (Speaking of stars, a film version of A Walk Among the Tombstones, featuring Harrison Ford as Scudder and produced by Danny DeVito, starts shooting on location shortly, while a second Block movie, with Jeff Bridges in the leading role, is currently in development.) And Block’s other popular series of novels, detailing the exploits of erudite housebreaker Bernie Rhodenbarr—Burglars Can’t Be Choosers, et al.—is also set in Manhattan.

But the city truly takes center stage in Block’s newest creation, published last month, which the author calls “a massive robust multi-viewpoint book with all the New York I could cram into it.” Small Town opens with the murder of Marilyn Fairchild, a West Village realtor, whose corpse is discovered by her house cleaner, Jerry, on his weekly visit. Even as police suspicion falls on John Creighton, the unsuccessful fiction writer who went home with her the night she died, more bodies turn up in the rest of the establishments where Jerry plies his trade. Yet neither suspect is the real killer—that would be too easy. Block instead casts his net over an array of affluent Manhattanites, charting the six degrees of separation that link them to the crime and one another: Creighton’s fast-talking, high-powered lawyer, Maury; Maury’s former lover, a chic gallery owner named Susan, whose co-op Marilyn showed; Susan’s kinky bedmate, ex–police commissioner/mayoral hopeful Francis Buckram.

Mingling actual settings (Corner Bistro) with fictional ones like Stelli’s (an exclusive boîte suspiciously similar to Elaine’s), Block stokes his bonfire of the vanities in brief but telling detail, displaying a flair for social satire rarely exhibited in his previous work. “He’s one of the most versatile writers I’ve ever known,” comments friend and Mysterious Book Store owner Otto Penzler. “He can go from light comedy to depressive, dark fiction and build suspense up as well. Most writers would be happy to achieve any one of those things; Larry manages to do them all.”

As proof, the most pulse-pounding chapter in Small Town doesn’t include a car chase or a killing, but an insider’s look at the publishing trade. It’s the episode where Creighton—a hot property now that he’s a suspected murderer and tabloid celeb (“Imagine if O.J. could write like Faulkner . . . “)—auctions the rights to his forthcoming novel. As rival publishers vie for his services and his agent calls him
periodically with updates, the figures for his advance escalate, bit by
bit, to a whopping $3.105 million. In real life, confesses Block, a book auction “is the closest the business comes to excitement” (though his own editors wanted to cut the chapter, lest lay readers find it dull).

A quintessential New York character (in Cushman’s words), Block grew up in Buffalo in the ’40s and briefly attended Antioch College—”School was wasted on me”—before leaving to work at a Manhattan literary agency. While he churned out stories for the pulp magazines and saw his first novel published in 1961, it wasn’t until 1976 that he hit the big time with The Sins of the Fathers, the first installment in the Scudder series. He hadn’t foreseen the character arc that would take Scudder down the years from alcoholic loner to happily married sobriety, but then, as the author puts it, “Writing is magic.” Despite the relentless pace of his prose (“Before you know it, you’re on page 50,” says Cushman), Block prefers feeling his way toward a plot rather than planning it in advance. Paraphrasing a favorite E.L. Doctorow quote, he explains, “Writing a novel is like driving at night: You can only see as far as the headlights reach, but you can get all the way across the country like that.”

The creative process behind Small Town was no different—except in one vital respect. Block, who lives in Greenwich Village, started penning the book in 2001 at the Ragdale artists’ colony in Illinois, where he spends most summers. He’d finished the opening sections and returned home when, two weeks later, the attacks of September 11 occurred. “Way down on the long list of casualties was Small Town, not that I felt like writing anyway.” He shelved the book indefinitely. “It seemed to me that a New York novel of any sort was impossible,” Block recalled in a recent essay. “It would either be about 9-11, which was a horrible idea, or it would not be about 9-11, which was arguably worse.”

Yet when he went back to the project last June, he found a renewed sense of inspiration, changing the time frame and plot to reflect the post-catastrophe world. Where before he’d vaguely envisioned the story as a courtroom drama centered around Marilyn Fairchild’s murder, it took shape as a thriller in which a serial killer (dubbed the Carpenter by the Daily News, in a typically accurate Block touch) terrorizes the metropolis. “He loved New York,” speculates a columnist in Small Town, “and the city betrayed him, taking his loved ones from him all in a single horrible morning. And now he is getting his horrible twisted revenge.”

Though Block treats the impact of September 11 skillfully—true to form, his New Yorkers carry on getting and spending, with only passing references to the event—the Carpenter story line lacks genuine tension. (His identity and motivation are given away early on, so there’s limited suspense in tracking him down.) And after the initial setup, the book’s focus switches to Susan’s unlikely transformation into a dildo-wielding dominatrix, the stuff of straight-porn fantasy, complete with lurid sex scenes and girl-on-girl action. (Questioned about the character, Block merely chuckles and replies, “Several people in publishing called me up to ask me for her phone number.”) Even more absurd is her love connection with Creighton: “Susan was his ideal reader . . . the one for whom he’d been writing all his life.” Far from being jealous, he encourages her to sleep around, breathing, “It’s who you are. It’s your art.”

Fortunately, there’s more to Block’s art than that. At his best, the writer conjures a recognizable universe of flawed heroes and thoughtful villains—like reality, only with better lines. His description of Creighton’s multimillion-dollar manuscript could well apply to his own body of work: “It was a good story, the protagonist richly human . . . the other characters sharply drawn, the prose and dialogue deceptively simple, transparent as glass.” In a publishing industry dumbing down more every day, it’s a pleasure to be reminded that bestselling and intelligent aren’t mutually exclusive terms.