First time around, Small Town made a huge impact on me. It’s very much a New York story, entirely influenced by 9/11. A decade later I was curious whether it would still feel as powerful, as involving and compelling as it did when Ground Zero was still little more than a hideous smoking hole, a raw wound at the heart of America. This is not your typical Lawrence Block hard-boiled pulp fiction PI quick thriller. Nor is it some anti-Islamic, homeland security, global conspiracy shindig, packed with racial stereotypes, easy targets and square-jawed heroes. It is, plain and simple, a love song to New York from one of its finest writers.
This love song is threaded throughout an interwoven series of sub-plots involving a cast of New Yorkers; all of them influenced by the events of 9/11. All previously independent and all very different; now drawn together under that overwhelming shadow by a series of much smaller murders. Small Town deals with death on a human scale – a series of killings which not only demand to be resolved but which are at least manageable, unlike those events which appear to defy our ability to influence them and reduce even the most powerful people to mere bystanders.
That’s the subtext here: a group of disparate souls all seeking to make some sense of their situations in a newly threatening environment, one which has rudely reminded them all of their own mortality. Imagine an entire city full of people all having a midlife crisis at once. LB picks up half a dozen of those threads and weaves them into a nifty thriller: there’s a bad guy, of course, who lost everything in the aftermath of 9/11 and is on a mission of near-religious importance to revive the city’s fortunes by sacrificing more people to answer the appalling insult that has been done to it.
With some writers, the killer would be little more than a caricature but with LB this guy is entirely believable and easily understood, even empathised with. He’s the quiet guy, grandpa who would always buy ice cream. Except now he’s not because his whole family has been ripped away from him and the fragments of personality which have resurfaced after that crisis has formed into a person with a single-purpose: to celebrate the anniversary of the actual event by taking as many people with him as possible… and in some way thereby assuage the city’s anguish.
Then there’s an art dealer, an independent woman, for whom these events are a catalyst into a very different kind of transformation. She starts experimenting with her own sexuality – maybe asserting that most basic need in the face of the inevitable end of us all – and soon draws a series of male and female partners into increasingly unusual sensual adventures.
Readers more familiar with LB’s detective novels may be a bit surprised by the explicit nature of these scenes (which means, basically, that it all gets a bit kinky at times. OK?) But the stranger things get in bed, the closer the characters come to understanding what they’ve experienced and how they can integrate their shock and fear into a future life. Only at the moment of accepting death can some of them start to live again: for ‘just a crime novel’ this all gets pretty zen…
But never fear, if you’d rather stick to the superficial story then that will keep you more than occupied. A series of grisly killings, an able unofficial investigator, a scapegoat who may actually be responsible for at least one death only even he doesn’t know the truth; the looming threat of an awful event – and plenty of naked romping.
On top of that we get to meet a slew of supporting characters all of whom feel like they’re drawn from real life, like the salon host who gave up on being skinny cos it turned out she preferred herself fat, or the wily old lawyer refusing treatment for his possible cancer and deciding to enjoy whatever time is left allotted to him. All of them, you want to spend more time with.
And at the end, I didn’t want Small Town to end. Which pretty much says it all. Although it was obviously written when the pain of 9/11 was fresh and raw, this book has matured into a tale worth reading at any time.
It almost scored a perfect 10/10 for me. However, one of the central characters is a novelist, a writer, and that felt just a touch contrived. Generally I detest books where the protagonist is a writer: it all gets way too autobiographical and just a wee bit narcissistic. LB carried it off far better than many, and I (mostly) enjoyed the fun section where the writer’s next novel is auctioned off among half a dozen publishers for a shedload of cash, but it felt entirely unnecessary, a detour from the narrative and a spot of in-joke self-indulgence that outstayed its welcome. Hence…
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
‘Small Town: A Novel of New York’ by Lawrence Block is occasionally available in hardback and paperback, and easily found in ebook format