Review: Dead Girl Blues by Lawrence Block

We are mostly lucky to live in an era where self-publishing is easy. While I’ve read (or tried to read) some self-published titles that I wish I hadn’t, I’ve also read some that, while they certainly could have used an editor’s touch, were decent to quite good books that almost certainly wouldn’t have been published otherwise.

Lawrence Block, of course, is perfectly capable of writing a book to professional standards without the help of an editor, but why would he, the pen behind countless books, choose to self-publish his new novel, Dead Girl Blues? Surely someone would publish it otherwise?

Well, no. Block explains why at length in a post at Mystery Fanfare, but the short version is that no one wanted to touch it due to the book’s subject matter. That’s right–Getting Off wasn’t a bridge too far, but Dead Girl Blues is.

And what is that subject matter? There’s a scene in the fun Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, The Running Man, where a supporting character tells the female lead regarding the innocent-but-framed Arnold, “You’re lucky he didn’t kill you, too. Or rape you, then kill you. Or kill you, then rape you.”

Dead Girl Blues is a first-person account of the life of someone who went with the third and final option.

The protagonist goes by three different names over the course of the novel, but I will call him John, the name he uses most often. The novel opens with John, at this point a gas station attendant, going to a bar and picking up a highly inebriated girl. He takes her to a remote location, where he proceeds with The Act. The rest of the novel, which is written as John’s memoir, details his life after this singular event.

The plot has two primary threads–will he get away with it, and will he do it again?

Getting away with it appears to be a done deal after the first few months or years. But as time marches on (the murder occurs in the late sixties), so does technology. Use of DNA as a crime-fighting tool becomes commonplace. People voluntary send their DNA in for testing and to fill out their family trees, helpfully filling in gaps for the authorities. Computer processing power increases astronomically. John watches stories about solving cold cases on the the news and true-crime TV shows and wonders, Will they find me?

As to the question of whether or not he’ll do it again: Lawrence Block has written extensively about alcoholism in his Matthew Scudder series and knows the subject well. A recovering or recovered alcoholic may have stopped drinking and may even have conquered his urge to drink, but he has not conquered alcohol. He knows, or should know, that if he drinks again, the odds of him ending up where he was once was, with the drinking problem and all of the destruction that comes with it, are so high as to almost be a certainty. John suspects that he is something akin to an alcoholic. If he kills again, it will likely lead to the destruction of all he holds dear, up to and including the loss of his life. This doesn’t always stop the man who struggles with alcohol. Will it stop John? While the parallel to alcoholism is never directly stated, it is likely not a coincidence that the night of John’s awful decision begins in a bar.

I finished Dead Girl Blues some time ago–before publication, in fact–but have had a deuce of a time writing about it. It’s a difficult book to discuss without spoiling, likely more suited to a book club discussion (if you’re in one of those book clubs where people are open to reading novels about necrophiliacs) than it is to a review, so I won’t write much more. Suffice it to say that it is extraordinarily rare for me to read a Block novel where I am not compelled to keep turning those pages, and Dead Girl Blues is not one of those rarities. I was wondering throughout what would happen and, in a most intended effect, wondering what I wanted to happen. Block forces the reader to grapple with this, and odds are the reader will not always be comfortable contemplating what he thinks and why.

What is quite enjoyable to contemplate is that in his ninth decade on this earth and nearly sixty years after the publication of his first novel under his own name, Block remains a startlingly original and compelling voice. If he’s not the greatest crime fiction writer of all time, he’s on the very short list of contenders for that title. Viva!