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Published: Saturday, 1/13/2001

Book review: Hit man with heart


HIT LIST. By Lawrence Block. HarperCollins. New York. 296 pages. $25.

Dark humor has characterized Lawrence Block's mysteries. And in Hit List he has hit his stride, presenting in so seductively funny a fashion the bizarre vicissitudes of a hit man's life as to force readers to pinch themselves lest they root too enthusiastically for the bad guy.

Keller is the hit man's name, never mind the John. He lives in Manhattan, and he travels the country filling murder contracts provided to him by Dot, who lives on Taunton Place in White Plains, N.Y. Dot is the successor to an old man who employed them both - but she helped him to eternity when his health took a serious downhill slide.

Dot and Keller are hopelessly ordinary. They are each other's truest confidantes, though there is no physical intimacy between them. Who suspects Murder, Inc., in White Plains, for heaven's sake? Especially one posing as a stamp collector.

Who could imagine, in the stamp stores of the nation, that this rather ordinary, anonymous man who shows up from time to time in pursuit of his hobby is whiling away time before or after the completion of a contract? Certainly no one on the jury on which he served in a stolen-property case. Certainly not the woman juror who stalled deliberations to insure a sequestration that would allow her to sleep with Keller, just once.

But Dot and Keller's world goes awry when she sends him on a job in New York. He doesn't like soiling his own nest. At an art gallery he meets Maggie Griscomb, who tells him he has “a murderer's thumb,” whatever that is, and asks how many people he has killed. Creepy. She wants his body for an hour or two a week, but no dates, no presents, no commitments. That's creepy, too.

He goes to see Louise Carpenter, a pleasant 40-something woman, an astrologer and a psychic. He's a Gemini, she tells him, a little of this and a little of that, able to lie at the drop of a hat, to be the soul of gentleness yet raging violently. “You've had to kill people,” she tells him. “Dispassionately.”

“It's business,” he confesses before sobbing helplessly, his head on her breast.

Keller doesn't think he has to kill Louise. He has other fish to fry. And besides, where are the details? More important is that the market for hit men is ebbing, competition is keen, and someone has been showing up at Keller's jobs and doing the deed before he gets there - and perhaps waiting for him.

But he is a crafty piece of work, so he winds up figuring out who his enemy is and doing what's necessary to clear the air and the field. Dot, in the meantime, is having flashbacks about a loose end she took it upon herself to tend to.

Their paths are clear. They console each other. A reader is comforted that all's well with them. They are so nice, so considerate of one another. And then one is reminded of their psychopathy and their deadliness, and Block's genius in juxtaposing the real unreality of their lives in the world most of the rest of us inhabit.

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