Usually, I’m strongly tempted to file any book or film with a professional hit man as its protagonist under “Fantasy” rather than “Crime.” (And as an aside – for some reason, professional hitmen protagonists seem much more a movie than a book thing. I do wonder why that is – maybe because you get away with less psychological depth in movies, and hence it is easier to make a central character that kills people for a living, if not likeable then at least someone to care for?) Because, well, professional hitmen – they’re right up with elves and unicorns, and all the other creatures of legend.
But I never felt that temptation with Hit Man, the first in a series featuring assassin-for-hire John Keller, because author Lawrence Block (who also wrote the excellent “Matthew Scudder” series, several volumes of which I have been writing about here) did something very clever here, which basically consists of moving everything having directly to do with assassinations to the margins. He does not even attempt to gloss over the inherent implausibility of the whole concept of a professional hit man, nor does he attempt to make to make it appear plausible; instead, he just takes it at face value and takes it from there.
Hit Man is told as a series of ten inter-related stories, and while each of these deals with at least one contract, it is only a minority of the stories in which those hits are the centre around which the narrative revolves (and in every single on the kills themselves are either glossed over or left out completely), most of the time they deal with our protagonists everyday life instead. This might seem like a rather weird choice on Block’s part – here is this man with a very… exotic profession, and instead of telling us all the details about it, the stories focus on what is normal about him – his travel arrangements, how spends his time in foreign times, or how he acquires and keeps a dog. But even when it is only taking place in the margins of the narrative or even is not mentioned at all, Keller’s profession is always at the back of the reader’s mind, and even when he is occupied with the most mundane things it is always present, hovering just at the edge of perception.
The longer the book continues, the more apparent it becomes just how clever Block’s oblique approach to his protagonist is: Over the course of the book, he presents the reader with the portrait of a thoroughly normal man, somewhat lonely, a bit melancholic and given to occasional daydreaming, and all in all quite a likeable guy. But also someone who follows a deeply unethical profession, who not only has no qualms murdering people for money but also does not hesitate to kill complete innocents if they get in his way. And even so, even though he never glosses over the fact how unsavoury a character Keller is, he remains likeable throughout, the reader can’t help but sympathize with him almost against themselves. And this way Block manages to pose several pertinent and unsettling questions about ethics, about how we judge people, about what makes someone a good or evil person, without ever having to formulate them explicitly.
This is a level of profundity (not to mention brilliant writing) that is rarely found in crime fiction; and if that wasn’t enough, Hit Man also is a very funny book. Not funny in a “laugh out loud and slap your thigh” kind of way, but I very often caught myself smiling wryly at the things happening to Keller, at the small absurdities and ironies of life, and even the occasional chortle might have escaped me. The humour in this book is of the quiet kind, and is often tinged with melancholy, just like Keller himself, but is not less funny for that, and this is quite remarkable for a book dealing with such big issues, and dealing with them in such an extremely unobtrusive way. In short, Hit Man once again confirms Lawrence Block as one of the best crime writers around (living or dead), and in my opinion is one of the best books in a career that is not exactly poor in high points.