16 March 2022

Insert Block Pun Here

  I am delighted to have a story in Issue #11 of Black Cat Mystery Magazine and I would like to say a few words about the author who inspired it.  You might even say my tale is a homage to him.  "Rip-off" is such a judgmental word.

Lawrence Block is one of our most versatile crime writers.  He has won an obscene number of Edgar Awards for both novels and short stories (plus the Grand Master Award).  He produces gritty P.I novels about recovering alcoholic Matt Scudder, and frothy comic capers about burglar-bookseller Bernie Rhodenbarr, not to mention gonzo tales of foreign intrigue starring Evan Tanner, who literally can't sleep and fills the endless hours working for lost causes.

And then there's Keller.

John Paul Keller is an assassin with, well, definitely not a heart of gold, but let's call it a rich inner life.  In his first appearance, the Edgar-winning short story "Answers to Soldier," the native New Yorker visits a small town in pursuit of a target and falls in love with the place.  In other tales he adopts a dog, hires a therapist, and pursues multiple other hobbies.  And there is always stamp collecting, the expense of which keeps him hard at the deadly grindstone.

I think of him as the antithesis of Parker, the burglar invented by Richard Stark (actually Block's friend Donald Westlake), who seems to have no life outside of his profession at all, not even a first name. Yes, he has a girlfriend, but other than that he seems to spend all his time smoking and gazing out into the dark night.  Even Westlake admitted to wondering what he did with all the money he stole.  Oh, and he probably kills more people in the average book than Keller.

But let's get back to our hit man.  In the novel Hit and Run Keller finds himself living incognito in New Orleans, claiming to be from Wichita.  "Sooner or later, he thought, someone familiar with the place would ask him a question about life in Wichita, and by then he hoped he'd know something about the city beyond the fact that it was someplace in Kansas."

When I read that my writerly instincts lit up.  What would happen if someone responded to that introduction by saying: "I grew up in Wichita!  Which neighborhood are you from?"

Well, Keller being Keller we know what would happen.  The happy Kansan would suffer an immediate and tragic accident.

But not every shady character is as fatal as this guy.  

In my story Larry (not Block) goes to a dinner party  and meets Matt, new to the neighborhood.  Matt explains that he is from Topeka.

“I love Topeka," Larry replies.  "Spent most of a year there a while back. Met my wife there.”

Matt immediately changes the subject.  Hmm...  Later Larry tells his wife: "I don’t think he knew Topeka from Tacoma.”

And Larry becomes obsessed with learning Matt's secret, if indeed he has one.  But secrets, of course, can be dangerous...  

You may wonder: why Topeka instead of Wichita?  Because "The Man From Topeka" scans better as a title, of course.

I like to think my story has a Block-ian feel to it.  But that's for you to decide.

And finally in honor of Gary Brooker, the voice and composer of Procol Harum, who died last month:



  1. I loved your story. Thanks for giving a glimpse into how it came to be written. I'm honored to have a story in the same issue.

  2. Same here on all counts, Rob. Did you mention that as an authorial technique after I left the "Settings" breakout room at the Short Mystery Watercooler last night? "If you use a setting you know nothing about and a reader asks you a question, kill them."

    1. Liz, on the day my first novel came out I showed it to a friend who looked at it for ten seconds and pointed out a geographical error. They have never found his body.

  3. Congratulations Elizabeth, O'Neil, and Rob for your BC stories.

    Rob I admire both Block and Procol Harum. I never would have thought of a way to link them, but this is why you earn top dollar. I look forward to the story.

  4. Topeka? Wichita? Love it! (How 'bout "Last Tango in Hugoton?") :D

  5. What fun! Both the story and this post. Thanks!!!


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