Tuesday 21 August 2012

LB Score: Hit Man by Lawrence Block; Signed First Edition (Morrow, 1998)

NB: A version of this post also appears on The Violent World of Parker blog.

Returning to the signed editions after a piece of signed Gavin Lyall paraphernalia, here's a book by a friend and contemporary – not to mention occasional collaborator – of Donald E. Westlake's, collecting – and reworking – a series of short stories starring a self-absorbed assassin...

This is the US first edition/first impression of Lawrence Block's Hit Man, published by William Morrow in 1998, with dust jacket art by Phil Heffernan (actually misspelt "Heffernen" on the jacket flap) and overall jacket design by Bradford Foltz, whose recognizably elegant designs have wrapped novels by the aforementioned Donald Westlake (Watch Your Back!, Mysterious Press, 2005) and Dennis Lehane (the Kenzie and Gennaro novels Darkness, Take My Hand, Sacred, Gone, Baby, Gone and Prayers for Rain), among others.  

Hit Man is the first of four books – soon to be five; there's a new one due next year – featuring John Keller, a hired killer in the throes of an extended existential crisis. The stories in this first collection – some of which originally appeared in Playboy – see Keller carrying out a variety of hits, most of which take him from his base of New York to nothing towns that he fantasizes about moving to and settling down in. Keller's quest to find some purpose in his life also sees him enter therapy (to less-than-satisfactory ends), get a girlfriend (ditto), get a dog (ditto again) and, best of all, in the final story, "Keller in Retirement", take up stamp collecting (as a book and comic collector, I was especially tickled by some of the collecting minutiae Block works in in that last one). The stories are wryly amusing and in places jarringly violent; you get that same sense of a tale being spun by a master storyteller as you do with Westlake (his capers in particular) or Elmore Leonard (another friend and contemporary of Block's). I liked the book a lot, and will definitely be back for more.

Hit Man had been on my radar for a while as one to read, so when I saw this copy squirreled away in the basement of a Cecil Court secondhand bookshop a few months back, and furthermore noted this inside:

I snapped it up. On the way back to Lewes from London I tweeted in a smug fashion that I'd just found a signed Lawrence Block book. Quick as a flash, LB tweeted back with, "It's the unsigned ones that are rare". Given that there are getting on for 3,000 signed Lawrence Block titles currently listed on AbeBooks, I guess he has a point, but even so: I was chuffed to get hold of a signed first edition of Hit Man, and an American first at that.

Next up, it's back to the signed ephemera, although in this case, unlike the Gavin Lyall letter mentioned above, the extraordinary piece of paraphernalia under discussion this time is stapled inside a book. Moreover, it hasn't been signed by the book's author, but by the book's publisher and, believe it or not, by a former prime minister...


  1. Love the Keller series. Picked HIT MAN up three or four years ago and was so impressed I quickly snapped up the rest. I'm envious that you've still got the others to read - they're all excellent. I didn't realize a fifth one's on its way - superb news!

  2. Thank, Jason. I suspect I'll be doing the same! And yep, I've seen mention of a new Keller from a multitude of sources.

  3. I've been a Lawrence Block fan for a long time but was never interested in these Keller stories/books until now. So thanks.

    On a related note, I am almost finished with Tucker Coe. Block is great with making his extensive backlist available in various electronic formats. It would be wonderful if some out of print Westlake could be made available the same way.

  4. The thing about the signature reminds me of that story concerning pulp writer Michael Avallone. Amongst the obituaries written by his friends and colleagues, there is a true story about Avallone coming round to a fan's house and discovering a complete set of his books on the shelves. He grabbed a pen and leapt towards the shelves, but was stopped by the fan who cried 'Don't sign them...they're worth more that way!"

  5. At this point, the only Blocks I've read are "The Girl With the Long Green Heart", which is about grifters, and "Killing Castro", a very early novel he published under a pseudonym--which bears the marks of an unpolished talent, and was still compulsively readable.

    Still a whole lot of Westlakes to get to--plus I'm starting to read Peter Rabe--plus plenty of other things--but Mr. Block is on my list.

    Btw, does this mean that my signed copies of "Smoke" and "The Ax" that I picked up for a song at the soon-to-be-defunct book shop Partners&Crime would be worth more if I covered up the signature?

    Oh never mind. ;)

  6. BG: It surprises me too that there's still a lot of Westlake that's OP. I suspect that will be changing over the next year or so though, at least insofar as ebooks go. Oh, and by the way, I can guarantee you're gonna love the next post.

    Sexton: That, in turn, reminds me of a story I heard about Stephen King sometimes signing his own books when he's browsing in bookstores and then putting them back on shelves again for unwitting shoppers to find...

    Chris: Westlake did sign a hell of a lot of books, especially later ones (earlier ones are less common, and more expensive). But a signed book is a signed book: for me, a book which has actually been in the author's hands is something to be prized, no matter how may others of his/her books have also passed through his/her hands. And that's also, incidentally, where a physical book will always have an ebook beat.

  7. Honestly, I'd always prefer an unsigned vintage 60's paperback without a signature to some later edition Westlake signed at a bookshop, along with maybe a thousand others just like it. To me, that sense of history--not to mention style--is irreplaceable. But I'm still happy to have these two first-edition hardcovers with his autograph.

    As to ebooks, I'm finally giving in--the law of supply&demand sometimes makes getting a physical edition of a book I want to read--first edition or not, signed or not--just too dear. Like it's impossible to get a cheap copy of "Jimmy the Kid"--I assume because both Dortmunder AND Parker fans want that one.

    Downloaded the Kindle app for my iPad. It'll help me spackle some holes in my collection, and save space, and all that. And I'd still rather have a tatty old paperback. No matter whose hands it passed through. Just so long as they washed them first. ;)