Lawrence Block's Five Books to Read More Than Once
I get a fair amount of reader mail, not surprising in this electronic age, especially since I make my email address (firstname.lastname@example.org) readily accessible. It's mostly composed of nice people saying nice things, so I enjoy it, but I especially welcome the occasional email from a fan who's reading a book or series of mine for the second or third or fourth time. In recent years I've found myself doing more rereading than reading, returning to favorite novels to renew old acquaintances. Not every book that succeeds on first reading can stand up to repeat visits—suspense is obviously less a factor when one's been there before—and I don't know that I can define what makes a book pleasurable a second time around. What I do know is that I can but hope some of my books possess this indefinable element.
Here are five that have it for me.
"The Year of the French" by Thomas Flanagan
This is the first volume of Flanagan's Irish trilogy, set at the time of the 1798 Rising. The succeeding books, The Tenants of Time and The End of the Hunt, are also superb, but they are a good deal less accessible, and I haven't returned to them in the same fashion. It's rare that an historical novel manages to be both a gripping read and genuine literature, but Flanagan makes it look easy. The ending is heartbreaking—I said it was Irish, didn't I?—and each time I read it, I hope it'll have a different ending this time.
"The Queen's Gambit" by Walter Tevis
The story of Beth Harmon, a young orphan who blossoms as a chess prodigy. Tevis, a wonderful writer (The Hustler, The Man Who Fell to Earth), was an impassioned chess player, but you don't even have to know how the pieces move to find this novel moving and engrossing. I've read it four or five times over the years, and—God willing and the creek don't rise—expect to return to it again.
"Ten North Frederick" by John O'Hara
Critics like to exclaim over O'Hara's short stories and his first novel, Appointment in Samarra, and it's not hard to see why; they don't have to read as much. O'Hara's a favorite writer of mine, and I would argue that he got better with age, and that his longer novels, including this one along with From the Terrace and A Rage to Live, are his best work. It seems to me that he conveyed American lives in the whole as no other writer has managed to do before or since. Has anyone ever written better dialogue? I don't think so.
"Butcher's Moon" by Richard Stark
As Stark, my old friend Donald E. Westlake wrote almost two dozen books about a career criminal named Parker. Every one of them is wonderful, and infinitely re-readable; it doesn't seem to matter that one remembers the story and knows how it's going to turn out. (Badly, more often than not.) I could pick any book in the series, but I'll stick with Butcher's Moon because this was where the series ended—until Don picked it up after many years and showed that neither he nor Parker had lost a step. It's longer than the other books, and brings in characters from all the earlier volumes, and—well, it's a hell of a read, no matter how many times I've already read it.
"The Killer Angels" by Michael Shaara
The brilliant novel of the Battle of Gettysburg, and thus the second historical novel on my list—which is odd, because I don't often enjoy historical fiction, and wouldn't dream of attempting to write it myself. They have to be remarkable to get my vote, and this Pulitzer Prize winner is emphatically that. An interesting note: Jeff Shaara, the author's son, was coaxed into writing a prequel (Gods and Generals) and sequel (The Last Full Measure) to his late father's book, and emerged as a brilliant writer of military historical fiction. I've read almost all of his books, but there's something about his father's book that makes it my choice for repeat visits.
About Lawrence Block
Lawrence Block has been writing award-winning mystery and suspense fiction for half a century. His newest book, pitched by his Hollywood agent as “James M. Cain on Viagra,” is The Girl with the Deep Blue Eyes. His other recent recent novels include The Burglar Who Counted The Spoons, featuring Bernie Rhodenbarr; Hit Me, featuring philatelist and assassin Keller; and A Drop Of The Hard Stuff, featuring Matthew Scudder, brilliantly embodied by Liam Neeson in the new film, A Walk Among The Tombstones. Several of his other books have also been filmed, although not terribly well. He's well known for his books for writers, including the classic Telling Lies For Fun & Profit and Write For Your Life, and has just published a collection of his writings about the mystery genre and its practitioners, The Crime Of Our Lives. In addition to prose works, he has written episodic television (Tilt!) and the Wong Kar-wai film, My Blueberry Nights. He is a modest and humble fellow, although you would never guess as much from this biographical note. Photo credit: Mary Reagan