“Keller in Houston” by Lawrence Block. Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. February 2011. I can’t read one of Larry Block’s tales about Keller without comparing him to Parker, the protagonist of Richard Stark (alias Donald E Westlake).
Both of them are bad guys. Keller is a hit man; Parker is a thief (although if you pick a random book about each of them the chances are that Parker will snuff more people than Keller. But it isn’t his goal; it’s just the cost of doing business in his line of work).
My point is that Parker is a kind of hollow man: we know nothing about him except his current life and crimes. There is no hint of his childhood, the things that shaped him, his hopes and dreams (beyond stealing more and more money.) When he isn ‘t working he’s living with his girlfriend, and as far as we know, doing nothing but waiting for another opportunity to steal something.
J.P. Keller, on the other hand, has what you might call a rich inner life. He’s constantly thinking about the good and bad parts of murdering people for a living, and exploring the world as he finds it. In his very first appearance (a short story called “Answers To Soldier”) he goes to a small town on business and falls in love with the place, so different from his New York world. In other stories he goes into therapy, acquires a dog, and so on.
But his longest-lasting hobby is philately. I n fact, the reason he hasn’t given up his business entirely is the need for extra funds to buy Antiguan blue one-cent triangulars, or the like. And it is one of the wonders of Block that he can make this part of the stories enjoyable for people whose only interest in stamps is sticking one on the gas bill.
In this story Keller is combining business weith pleasure in Houston by attending a stamp auction. “But first he’d have to kill somebody.”
This assignment gives us another glimpse of Keller’s inner being as he copes with the decision of whether to kill someone who is not a part of the assignment. It would be easier and safer to do so but one characteristic of the bystander touches Keller’s – dare we call it a conscience? His solution to the problem is a typically clever touch.
Block is, of course, a very witty writer, but Keller is not a witty character (unlike Block’s burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr, for instance). So a lot of the wit in these stories comes from Dot, Keller’s equally murderous agent, who brings him his assignments. Here she is describing her new lifestyle: “I moved to Sedona and the pounds started to drop off right away. The place is crawling with energy vortexes, except I think the plural is vortices.… I think (a vortice) is like an intersection except the streets are imaginary. Anyway, some of the women I know are fat as pigs, and they’ve got the same vortices I do.”
An enjoyable view of an amoral wonderland.