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Onyx reviews: Hit List by Lawrence Block

Keller, the protagonist of Hit Man and its sequel, Hit List, is a contract killer. The kind of person you call when you want to do away with the boss, your spouse, or anyone else you don't happen to like. No reasons need be specified. Pay the cash (half in advance, half upon completion of the job) and that's all it takes.

Hit Man was a collection of short stories, many of which had previously appeared in different publications. Keller's exploits lend themselves well to the short story format: Keller gets an assignment, travels to where the victim resides, scopes out the situation, and fulfills the contract. He has some adventures or misadventures along the way, but they are tidy little packages. A reader can take in one or two at a sitting, put the book aside, try something else and come back to other stories without worrying about losing continuity.

Block stretches Keller to his limits by casting him in a novel. Hit List is, in some ways, a loose collection of short stories, but there are continuing threads that must be resolved. The primary one deals with "Roger," a shadowy character who at first appears to be trying to kill Keller while he is on assignment and later begins to fulfill Keller's contracts before Keller has a chance to do so himself.

Keller's boss, Dot, takes the calls, deals with the financial end of the business and hands out the assignments. Keller's routine is unvaried: he receives a call from Dot, takes a train out to White Plains where she lives, gets the particulars and heads for the airport. They exchange playful banter while discussing the soon-to-be-deceased.

After a few close encounters with Roger, Keller and Dot come to believe that "Roger" is another hit man, someone who is trying to guarantee himself a larger piece of the action by eliminating the competition. They concoct a series of elaborate ploys to unveil Roger and bring him down, but the reality of the Keller stories varies little. He still ventures off to distant cities and does his work. He also finds time to visit the local stamp shop, because, in his off-hours, Keller collects stamps. It passes the hours between being asked to kill people.

When Roger changes gears and starts killing Keller's intended targets, sometimes before Keller even gets off the airplane, the novel unravels a little. Roger is wildly ingenious in how he commits his murders. In the first instance, Keller witnesses the crime. Somehow Roger has manipulated a little old lady into running the victim down. It is never explained how he does this. The crimes become even more outlandish, including one that is televised across America, yet Block never gives the reader the satisfaction of finding out how Roger pulls off these improbable feats. It is one thing for a writer to create a locked room murder—it is yet another to try to convince the reader that how the crime was committed is unimportant and not to be explained.

Keller is an interesting character, and Block makes the reader root for this cold blooded murderer, which is no small challenge. He adds some diversions to Keller's life—Keller is called to jury duty, thus creating the ironic situation of a murderer sitting in judgment of a petty criminal—and he throws a series of eccentric women his way. However, in bringing this character to the larger stage of a novel, Block emphasizes how much Keller is mostly a one trick pony better served by a shorter format.

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