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Onyx reviews: Hit Me by Lawrence Block

Television series like Dexter and Breaking Bad have people rooting for bad men. The same demand is placed upon readers of Lawrence Block's series featuring hit man John Keller. Though Keller is portrayed in a sympathetic manner and the books are written with a jaunty tone, there can be no denying the fact that he is a stone cold killer.

The main problem is that Block does not paint Keller's targets as vile monsters whose deaths make the world a better and safer place. They are simply people who someone else wants dead. Keller rarely troubles himself with the reasons why he is supposed to kill a person. It's a contract that he is meant to fulfill for which he will be paid handsomely, and if he doesn't do it, someone else will. He views each assignment as a logic problem to solve. How do you kill a reclusive monk? What do you do when someone else is trying to kill your intended victim?

Keller tried to retire at the end of Hit and Run. He changed his name to Nicholas Edwards, married, had a daughter and moved to New Orleans, where he has been keeping up appearances by working with a man who is restoring and flipping houses damaged by Hurricane Katrina. Keller/Edwards doesn't need to work—he has vast resources in offshore accounts—but if he doesn't people will wonder how he makes ends meet. When the bottom falls out of the housing market, though, Keller decides to accept an assignment from Dot, his handler, the woman who isolates him from the people taking out the contract.

Keller is also a philatelist. His specialty is pre-1940 non-US stamps, and he has invested heavily in his hobby. Much of the money he makes from his new contracts goes toward purchasing stamps at auctions. In every one of the six stories in this "novel," Keller is able to combine business with pleasure. He attends auctions or otherwise takes advantage of his hobby in the city where he is sent to kill someone. Once or twice might have seemed a fair coincidence, but having it happen in every story belabors the point beyond credibility. Some of the most interesting passages in the book, though, are Keller's treatises on geopolitics as they pertain to the existence of certain types of stamps.

The first Keller book, Hit Man, was a collection of unconnected short stories, whereas the second, Hit List, was a "fix-up" novel with a story arc that tied the stories together, albeit clumsily. Hit and Run is the only one of the five Keller books published to date conceived of as a novel. There is a logical progression to the stories in Hit Me, though. They clearly take place in sequence, but one does not rely heavily on another. 

Compared to Block's Scudder novels, the Keller books are lite fare. Whereas Block plumbs the depths of the ex-cop and recovering alcoholic, he rarely gets beneath the surface of Keller. He's a hit man and a stamp collector, a husband and a father. That's all readers know about him. His strongest character trait is the fact that he won't accept a contract to kill a child. He has a "moral code," but it's not terribly sophisticated and manifests itself mostly in his scrupulously honest dealings in business transactions with other stamp collectors. Keller's wife is even more sparsely drawn. She knows what Keller does, and goes along with him on a cruise where she gets to meet the victim in advance, but she isn't troubled by the fact that her husband is a murderer. 

By the end of Hit Me, Keller is once again trying to get out of the assassination business, having found a new calling as a "picker"—someone who finds valuable objects (in his case, stamps) among collections. However, a sudden crisis of conscience has Dot calling Keller one more time, this time to prevent a hit that she would have normally turned down. The final vignette is, perhaps, a setup for the next book. Either that, or it is some kind of existential statement about Keller  Whatever the case, it is an abrupt and unexpected ending to the book that evades meaning.

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