Reviews and Recommendations by Mel Odom, Professional Writer

KILLING CASTRO by Lawrence Block

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Lawrence Block’s Killing Castro is a reprint of the original 1960s novel published as Fidel Castro Assassinated under the penname Duncan Lee. As a collector’s item, it’s pricey and hard to find, so for completists looking for a bargain and not stuck on first editions, here’s a bargain—with a fantastic cover.

I’m a big fan of Block’s books and have been reading them for over thirty years. I found his Evan Tanner books in my favorite used book shop back in the 1970s, along with the Other Gold Medal novels I discovered. The Tanner books often revolved around political agendas as well, but were spy novels of a very different sort.

One of the best things Block brings to any book is characterization. Matt Scudder, Bernie Rhodenbarr, and Keller are all fully realized, equipped with understandable goals and motivations and fears. Every time I open one of those books, I feel like I’m sitting down with an old friend and catching up on the latest news. It’s a good feeling.

Since I’ve gone on to become a professional writer myself, I find it interesting to pick up an early book by someone that I deem is a master. Some writers never change in their craft and you don’t get a chance to see the growth. The world may change around these writers, but their heroes and how they deal with problems as well of their viewpoints never seem to grow or expand. Block constantly incorporates the new and changing world with each of his characters. All of them are affected by politics, economics, and age. As Block himself must be.

In Killing Castro, reading it as a writer myself, I got to watch Block bring five disparate characters to life and throw them against the unexpected as well as a threat that was larger than each of them. A regular reader may just see the five characters Block presents, but a close reader—a reader wanting to learn the writing craft—can see a master in his early years figuring out ways to put characters together.

Block introduces the desperate man looking for a way out of his situation, the young man looking for vengeance, a cool professional assassin, a dying man with nothing left to lose, and a man who’s nothing more than a brutal animal. None of these characters are particularly well designed. At best, they’re serviceable. But the writer in me knows that Block was exploring different character types and a multilayered plot line.

Although fifty years have passed since the book’s initial publication, and the world political climate has definitely changed, Killing Castro serves as a quick and entertaining read if not thoroughly engrossing the way Block’s books normally are these days. There aren’t any real surprises in the plot (our heroes really don’t succeed in killing Castro), but you can see glimpses of the writer Block will be in the way he handles the characterization, the conflict—internal and external, and the dialogue.

One of the interesting aspects of the book is the way Block handles the sex scenes. Before he became a successful mystery and suspense writer, Block wrote a lot of “men’s books.” Some of the vernacular and stage direction shows in his prose in this novel, and gave me a couple of chuckles. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that style of writing show in any of his books outside of the Chip Harrison series. And if you haven’t read the Chip Harrison books, you’re in for something of a treat because Block does a great pastiche of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe.

Killing Castro is a great little book for rainy day or a beach read. The outcome of the men’s efforts is already a foregone conclusion, but the changes that take place and the secrets that are revealed are definitely worth the read. If this is your first Lawrence Block novel, let it be an introduction to the greater things he’s accomplished in his career.


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