Lawrence Block is the grand old man among hard-boiled crime writers, but even though I love the genre, it took me years to find something by him I liked. I tried a couple of times, but there was just too much twelve-stepping in his series novels for my tastes. Then I picked up 2003’s Small Town.
This novel is set in New York in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, and the shell-shocked city, and its tightly knit communities, are the star of the show. The plot kicks off with the grisly murder of a barroom lush, who was last seen in the company of a minor writer, John Blair Creighton.
"He seemed to recall a rocks glass, devoid of rocks, but brimful of Wild Turkey"
Creighton thinks he’s probably innocent, but can’t really remember the night in question:He’d done some drinking at her apartment. Just one drink, he’d for some reason insisted to the cops, but was that true? If so, it was a technicality, because he seemed to recall a rocks glass, devoid of rocks, but brimful of Wild Turkey.
Faced with the impossible task of clearing his name with his memory gone AWOL, Creighton copes by writing about his situation.
It soon emerges that a serial killer is further terrorising the already bruised Big Apple, but Creighton remains the number-one suspect in the initial murder. And the resultant publicity makes his forthcoming novel a very hot property, even though there’s a real possibility he might be sent to jail:He hadn’t done it, but they didn’t know that and he couldn’t prove it. And all of them – Esther Blinkoff…and all the other bidders, and all the people in the upstairs offices who told them how far they could go, Jesus, they all knew it could happen, and they went ahead and placed their bids just the same.
Because it didn’t matter.
An act of violence fascinates a public who endlessly revisit an event they should and do find repulsive – the parallels with 9/11 are obvious.
Everyone who appears in Small Town is connected, and the serial killer’s motivation also begins with the al Qaeda outrage, though not in the way one might initially surmise. And in a nifty plot twist, the breakthrough in the case comes via a bartender with a very good memory for customers’ habits:“I may not remember every last person who showed me that picture, as many as there’ve been. You I remember. Bushmill’s right?”
“Actually it’s Jamesons.”
“Hey, close enough. Rocks or water back?”
This is a marvellous scene, illustrating in the simplest form how New York, for all its monumental massiveness, remains but the sum of millions of the most local, human interactions.
Lawrence Block’s story pulses with a love for his home city and seethes with anger at what has been done it. It’s the same aggression that drives the classic hard-boiled novels of James M. Cain or Dashiell Hammett. And that makes it a page-turning rumination on loss and togetherness, looking back and moving on, destruction and survival.