Lawrence Block’s doorstop of a short story collection, Enough Rope, demonstrates the power and variety possible within the crime genre. The breadth of Block’s oeuvre is well represented here;
tales of urban anxiety mix with private eye stories. A soulful assassin kills a man he has grown to like. A demonically effective lawyer clears guilty clients. Lawrence Block’s range is matched by his ability
to create sympathetic underworld characters in sometimes impossible situations. In the story that opens the collection, “A Bad Night for Burglars,” a homeowner surprises a burglar who wants only to get out clean. The homeowner has plans of his own, turning the trespasser into a pawn in a murderous scheme. There are stories of odd couplings in Europe and of serial killers in the making. Yarns about powerful, greedy men being fooled by cleverer men. In other words, genre writing in its purest form.
Block’s series are also present in this 83-story “skyscraper” of a collection. Bernie Rhodenbarr, the bookseller burglar, steals books from the rich and undeserving. Martin Ehrengraf defends the guilty. In “Answers to Soldier,” Block’s stone cold Keller’s heart seems to melt for the mob accountant he has been hired to kill, but more so for the city his target has relocated to—Roseburg, Oregon. “Every place you go,” Keller’s dispatcher Dot says, “ you want to live there.” Any warmth Keller shows in these stories, any movement of his soul, is deception.
Like most of Block’s heroes, these are men whose truth is only evident in their actions, never their hearts. Only Matthew Scudder—his recovering alcoholic PI—is allowed to live without duplicity. In the remarkable “Batman’s Helpers,” Scudder has joined a crew of men hired to seize counterfeit Batman merchandise from street vendors. Between the petty harassment of immigrant merchants and the startling realization that it would have been cheaper for the good people of DC Comics and Sony Pictures to buy the wholesalers out rather than shakedown relative innocents, Block portrays corporate stupidity, easy brutality and the power of saying no. Not every story in Enough Rope deserve re-reading, but some—“Batman’s Helpers,” most notably—move a simple crime story into the realm of literature and give back much more than they ask.