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Block's "Small Town" is big treat

cover, Small Town
Fans of Lawrence Block have waited a long time for a new, stand-alone novel. None of Block's series characters--Bernie Rhodenbarr,Matthew Scudder, or Keller--appear anywhere in the pages of Small Town [2003, Harper Torch-HarperCollins Publishers, NY,NY]. No witty buglarish comedy, then, no alcoholic (post- or otherwise) sleuthing, and no murders-for-hire awaits readers here. Instead, we are rewarded with an intriguing mixture of boldly-drawn characters who eventually disturb each other's orbits in the vast solar-system of the Big Apple. Fans of Lawrence Block know to expect the unexpected from his fully-fleshed villains and heroes. This novel's motley crew of flawed good-guys and sympathetic bad-guys certainly will not disappoint faithful readers. Might shock them, though. Small Town won't be featured anytime soon in the local library's Books Read Out Loud program. This one's strictly for mature adults.

Small Town builds its post-9-11 story one piece at a time, as Block introduces each character with revealing morsels and a smidgen of background. First we meet Jerry Pankow, an unassuming gay man who pays the rent by cleaning two bars and a brothel. He also picks up spare cash by tidying-up for a few clients he's acquired by word-of-mouth. One of them, lovely Marilyn Fairchild, turns up dead. Her death leads us to an acquaintance of the deceased: Susan Pomerance. She's the owner of a successful folk-art gallery, and she's looking for love in a whole lot of places. Perhaps the death of her one-time friend compels her to live life with a bit more gusto. Susan introduces us to her favorite attorney and some-time lover, Maury Winters. More on Maury shortly.

We're drawn, next, deep into the lives of two very dissimilar heroes: a struggling writer and a "retired" top-cop. The writer, John Blair Creighton, might have murdered the bar-cleaner's client--even he isn't completely certain of his own innocence. Fortunately for Creighton, his lawyer is the afore-mentioned Maury Winters, one very capable defense attorney. Meanwhile, the cop, former NYC Police Commissioner Francis Buckram, finds himself intrigued with the circumstances surrounding the first murder. (Oh, yes, there are many more murders along the way!) He finds himself even more intrigued with the gallery owner, Susan, who's busy discovering the power of love. Susan immerses herself in the lives of an entire collage of characters, some of them central to the story--some not. It's all fun to watch, at any rate.

As more people die, the circumstances seem to implicate the cleaning guy, Pankow. We know he didn't do it, since we know who the real killer is, and we know why. (No, I won't tell you his name here.) We can even sympathize to an extent, although this poor fellow's methods are rather disturbing. Meanwhile, the writer and his attorney must fend off an over-eager pair of detectives who, at first, feel sure the writer is the killer. Murder charges lead to amazing developments for John Creighton, the struggling novelist. The writer's notoriety ropes in Miss Susan, who knows the policeman, who's pretty sure the author is innocent. One of Susan's other "friends" tells her a story that eventually exposes the true killer, after a few more gruesome twists in the plot. And I haven't told you the half of it all!

I'm sure there have been
hundreds of novels written since the fall of the Twin Towers. With nearly three thousand souls lost among four related disasters, there is an endless supply of stories to tell. Small Town is entirely fictional, however. This isn't Readers' Digest "Drama in Real Life." Instead, Block treats us to a mostly irreverent human drama. Don't read this tale expecting heart-wrenching descriptions of selfless heroism. Read it for the joy of a rambling and ambitious plot piloted by a wild and unlikely crew. If, in the end, the whole concoction offends your sensibilities--well, there's always next month's Readers' Digest. For all the rest of us, we can only wait for Block's next endeavor. We might be surprised, but we won't be disappointed.
--Highly recommended: 4 stars (of five).

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