Hit the Hit Man
Keller, the solitary contract killer last seen in 1998's Hit Man is back. Hit Man, a collection of linked stories by Grand Master Lawrence Block, took us deeply into the violent, contradictory life of a remorselessly efficient murderer. In Hit List, the first novel-length Keller adventure, Block expands and deepens his compelling portrait of the man he has dubbed, "the Urban Lonely Guy of Assassins."
Put another way, Keller represents the Assassin as Everyman. He is a quiet, unremarkable- looking fellow who loves dogs, collects stamps, fumbles his way through a series of temporary relationships, and speculates about the forces -- karmic, genetic, astrological -- that have made him what he is. But every now and then he accepts a commission from a matronly, middle-aged lady name Dot, travels to a distant city, and murders a perfect stranger.
Hit List is an episodic, deliberately meandering novel that recapitulates the structure of its predecessor, cutting back and forth between Keller's wildly divergent personal and professional lives. Unlike Hit Man, however, this book has a single, central dramatic device that powers the plot: Keller's discovery that he himself is now the target of an unidentified killer.
Keller, together with Dot, comes to this conclusion gradually, after a number of routine assignments take inexplicable turns. An adulterous couple who inherit Keller's motel room are shot to death. A pair of Keller's prospective victims die prematurely. A small-time thief steals Keller's raincoat and is murdered shortly afterward. Eventually, Dot and Keller piece together the bizarre but undeniable truth: that a fellow "professional" -- known only as Roger -- is busily eliminating rival hit men, in the hope of grabbing a larger share of a limited but lucrative market.
Keller's attempts to elude his pursuer, continue practicing his profession, and, in the end, turn the tables on Roger form the dramatic center of this witty, compulsively readable book. But the real heart of the novel -- its non-dramatic center -- is Block's pitch-perfect rendering of his lethal protagonist's day-to-day life. Hit List is filled with colorful, sharply observed set pieces -- long, circular dialogues between Keller and Dot, an emotional encounter with an overweight astrologer, a funny, surprisingly romantic account of Keller's first experience with jury duty -- that are worth the price of admission all by themselves. Block, like Keller, is a consummate professional: resourceful, reliable, always capable of the unexpected move. The Keller stories constitute a unique contribution to modern crime fiction, and are the clear product of a master craftsman at the top of his considerable form.
Bill Sheehan reviews horror, suspense, and science fiction for Cemetery Dance, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and other publications. His book-length critical study of the fiction of Peter Straub, At the Foot of the Story Tree, has just been published by Subterranean Press (www.subterraneanpress.com).