Lawrence Block’s first published novel hit the shelves in 1958. His most recent novel, Dead Girl Blues, is a 2020 release. That means that the author has published books in eight different decades. Let that marinate in your mind for a minute. Even more remarkable: the quality of his work hasn’t slipped a bit. He’s still got the magic.
The narrator of Dead Girl Blues is - well, let’s call him Buddy - a former gas station clerk in 1968 Bakersfield, California. I say “former” because the narrator is really Buddy as an older man looking back on a series of events that occurred years ago and his life thereafter. Yes, it’s one of those books where the narrator is copping to actually writing the book you’re reading - with periodic breaks in the action for old Buddy to comment on the thoughts and actions of younger Buddy. It’s a literary gimmick that’s worked well for Stephen King throughout the years, and Block employs it well. There are several other King-esque aspects of this paperback, but they are for you to discover yourself.
One night at a roadhouse, young Buddy picks up a drunk chick and takes her to a rural road to have sex. Things go sideways quickly, and Buddy kills her and rapes her. Yes, in that order. It’s a pretty graphic scene that showcases some real daylight between Block and his cozy mystery colleagues. There will be no plucky spinster and her precocious cat solving this crime.
After the shocking opening chapter, it was hard to know where Block would take the reader. Is this a man-on-the-run story? A redemption tale? An “inside the head of a serial killer” novel? What happens thereafter is far more interesting and thoughtful than any of the obvious options, and Block delivers the goods like a wily veteran of the game.
At 218 paperback pages, Dead Girl Blues is shorter than most modern novels, but just-right for the old Fawcett Gold Medal potboilers where the author got his start. Of course, those vintage paperbacks lacked the necrophilia plot thread at the centerpiece of this new one. So times do indeed change - which, in a way, is the point of the book. Can a man ever be done with the past if the past isn’t done with him?
If you search hard enough on the internet, you’re bound to find a reviewer willing to spoil plot details of Dead Girl Blues, but I ain’t the one. I will only tell you that the book is definitely worth your time if you can stomach some extreme adult content at the outset. Block appears to be posing the question: Is a man defined by the worst thing he’s ever done? As for the answer, I’d encourage you to read the book and find out for yourself.
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