Thursday, November 17, 2011

Getting Off by Lawrence Block (Writing As Jill Emerson) (3/5)

The Hard Case Crime series and Lawrence Block have had a mutually beneficial relationship for a while now.  The HCC line specializes in reprints of old crime and mystery "pulp sleaze" novels as well as modern titles in the same vein, and as one of the princes of the genre, Block has carved out a comfortable niche for himself as a dependable contributor to the series.  They've published no less than seven of his works, some reissues, some brand new never-before-published offerings.  Getting Off is one of the latter, and to be honest... I have mixed feelings.  But before I get into that, let me tell you a little bit about the book itself.

Imagine Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me combined with a liberal dose of "Harlequin Blaze" and a little Palahniuk-style dark humor sprinkled in and you'll have a pretty good idea of what the novel is about.  Katherine Anne Toliver is a twenty-something young lady, youthful and gorgeous and willing to please.  She's also a sociopath, a chameleon, and a ruthless killer.  Her primary M.O. is to take a man to bed, screw his brains out, and then kill him.  The method used isn't important to her; she employs a variety of tactics (both sexual and homicidal) to accomplish the deed.  It's the mingling of sex and death on which she "gets off," and she strives for that high throughout the novel.  It's equal parts serial killer crime fiction and erotica, definitely not for the squeamish or prudish.  Just about every sexual act you could think of is mentioned, dozens of people are bumped off in stark detail, straight and homosexual relationships are explored, and even pedophilia is touched upon (though only in reference to the main character's background).  Block refrains from delving too far into the messy details, but there's more than enough to titillate.  True to style Block remains unflinching in the presentation of both the erotic and the violent.

The first quarter of the book is devoted to main character's background, her motivations, and the murders of several luckless men whose names are easily forgotten.  After each murder she leaves town for somewhere else, adopting a new name and new story each time.  For our purposes we'll call her Kimmie, since that's the name she goes by the most and the one she ends up with at the end of the novel.  The narrative jumps around chronologically until it hits upon a conversation she once had with a group of people in a bar (one of whom she eventually kills, but what's new?).  It's one of those "what's your number" type discussions, i.e., the number of people you've slept with.  When asked, Kimmie gives her number as five.  Of course, being the astute readers I am, I immediately was all, "What the hell?  She's slept with half a dozen guys in the book already!"  But soon it's revealed that the "five" she means are the only men she's slept with and have lived to tell the tale.  And that plants the seed of what is to become her mission throughout the rest of the book--to track down those five men and kill them, thereby rolling back her sexual odometer to zero.

The rest of the novel details the lengths she goes in order to track down, seduce, and murder every one of the five.  Block does an admirable job keeping it interesting by presenting Kimmie with different obstacles and evolving her character with each new hurdle.  She becomes friends with another woman named Rita with whom she has an almost instantaneous attraction (cliche, much?).  The feminists in the audience will be glad to know that the development of their lesbian relationship isn't nearly as instantaneous.  Block actually portrays the relationship in what to me seemed like a fairly original and somewhat-realistic way, but this is coming from a guy who doesn't read much LGBT literature, so what do I know?  Much of the book is dedicated to Kimmie's wrestling with this budding relationship--not because of any fear of homosexuality, but because she doesn't want to have to kill her new friend after its all over with.  Block dances between the two plot lines--the lesbian relationship and the quest to return her number to zero--weaving them together until both parts of her life merge and become one.

As I said before, there's a lot of dark humor in this book.  I found myself laughing out loud at points, but some of the puns were overdone a little bit.  Also, for the most part Block does a good job crafting interesting, complex characters that evolve with the plot and are at least believable if not sympathetic.  Kimmie isn't the type of anti-hero you find yourself rooting for, but she's interesting enough to keep your attention.  The one thing I had to work hard at suspending my disbelief on was that she manages to kill so many people and never runs afoul of the police.  But that wasn't too awfully hard as Block explains it away at various points in the story.  They’re not completely believable explanations, but at least they’re on the side of plausibility. 

What really got my goat about this book and what got my feelings so "mixed,” I mentioned before, is the structure.  It takes roughly a quarter of the book before we get to the main plot, and even then the events are often times meandering.  I'm not a successful writer with dozens of publications under my belt (otherwise I wouldn't be here telling you all this, I'd be out writing me some damned books) nor am I an editor, but it felt to me as if the narrative needed tightening in spots.  I'm not sure that the plot, as it is presented, is strong enough or deep enough to carry a book of its length.  Therefore the premise (sociopathic female sex murderer!) has to bear more than its fair share of the weight.  It's as if the editors said, "Editing?  Pshaw, this is Larry Block we're talking about here!  He's a made man.  He don't need no stinkin' editing!" and published the book without due attention to length or structure or pacing.  Though, I shouldn't be surprised.  Hard Case Crime has a tendency of doing this.  They publish a sub-standard work from a well-known author and rely upon the strength of the author's name to sell books.  It's kind of like Metallica.  Everyone knows their albums suck nowadays, but they still buy them when they come out because "it's Metallica, man!" 

That's not to say that Getting Off is a bad book.  I really did enjoy it.  It's just that it falls a little short of Block's usual brilliance, and I can't help but wonder if that's because no one had the stones to tell a Mystery Writers of America Grand Master that he needed to change something.


  1. Really enjoying your blog. It's taken me a while to get back to it since this morning but I've been doing some reading and it's great! Donna

  2. @Donna

    Thanks so much, Donna! I'll be visiting your blog and adding it to my followers list too!

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