4 out of 5
Here are some things I didn’t know about Lawrence Block, and I feel pretty horrible about that: that he writes short stories, and that he’s still writing, as of 2021.
My first exposure to Block was through Hard Case Crime, and I’d picked up some other books as a result, having been easily swayed to understand why he’s one of the masters of the pulp genre, and though I’d done some wikipedia reading on the author, my brain still contextualized him within the confines of what I’d read. So although it should be obvious that short stories were part of his oeuvre, I guess I placed them more toward the start of his career, not realizing they were a continual part of his output (and enough to fill several volumes of similar short story collections like this one!). Similarly, though I think it registered, on some level, that he was still active, again, since the stuff I was reading was from decades ago… that’s how I thought of him. And some of the stuff in Catch and Release definitely does go back, but since the goal here was to collect the heretofore uncollected, we also get some comparatively modern pieces. It can be a little weird to hear references to TV and music and technology from the most recent generations (like a Sopranos reference…?), but the more important takeaway, surely already known to Block fans: is that the writer is incredibly good at scripting a solid short, and also that he’s not slowed a beat over the years: Block’s writing is as thoughtful, inventive, and visceral as ever.
To wit, the stuff in Catch and Release is – a fair amount of it – damned dark. Block really goes to some murky corners of his various narrator’s minds, and even when the subject isn’t necessarily murder, death or morbidity will creep in to surprise you. There’s also some slightly more light-hearted fare – and stuff that picks up some of his classic character, like Matt Scudder – but I was consistently surprised (and I really want to underline consistently) how affecting and immersive the majority of these stories were, regardless of the decade in which they were written.
Being a collection of odds and ends, there are ups and downs, of course. There’s a “lost” story that Block prepends with a note saying its discovery is more interesting than the content, and I’d agree with that, and you can sense the workmanship quality in some – when the writer is commissioned for a piece and knocks it out, edging it into territory that was probably expected of him. The Scudder bits also require some context to work – there’s a bit too much of a learning curve with names and events otherwise – and two of the longest stories, which are linked, and from an aborted anthology series – tend to drag a bit, despite the guts of each being really, really good. (In his notes, Block mentions running out of steam on those before the third book in the series would’ve occurred, and you can sort of tell.) But there’s not a bad story, by any means – or a boring one, or an average one – and the majority hovering in the ‘great’ range certainly offsets the above criticisms.
The printing, from Subterranean Press, is great. This uses the same binding and font as their previous HCC collab, which gives the book a really clean, sophisticated look. Block’s addition of thoughts and notes on every story at the end is really the cherry on top.
For a writer with such voluminous output, it’s probably hard picking some highlight to gift to a new Block reader, but what’s amazing about Catch and Release is that I think it stands toe to toe with many of the greats I’ve read from the author, despite plucking writings with various focuses from across the years.