“Compare and contrast.” I heard that often enough in college art history classes when a huge screen lit up with slides of some old master painting paired side by side with an impressionist, abstract or expressionist work dealing with a similar subject. “Compare and contrast,” we were instructed to do, awkwardly standing up in a packed auditorium and, in my case, terrified that I’d butcher the artists’ names when forced to say them out loud.
Compare and contrast: I’d just tucked away my copy of Ivy Pochoda’s These Women, knowing what I was in for when I pre-ordered the book and still mulling it over days later when Lawrence Block’s 2020 Dead Girl Blues came in for a pickup. Pochoda’s novel might end up mis-shelved in the mystery or thriller section in some stores, but really it’s neither, instead being a much more harrowing look at the overlooked and ignored in an all-too-familiar setup – a serial killer preying on prostitutes in South Central L.A. Pochoda’s take on this, its literary structure and wordsmithing throw down a gauntlet to challenge countless contemporary thriller writers who celebrate violence, sexualized torture and death for entertainment, her novel zeroing in not on yet another psycho killer, the law enforcement chase or voyeuristic peeks at the victims’ suffering, but instead, on the victims’ friends, parents and even the neighborhood that was the scene of the crimes.
Now I’ve sung Lawrence Block’s praises here before, being one of a select group of writers I revere and who could retype an old phone directory and still sell it to me. With a career that goes back to the 1950’s, there’s a mountain of Block work to digest, so I won’t claim to have read everything he’s done. Well…yet.
Compare and contrast: Pochoda’s These Women goes after the sometimes squirm-worthy serial killer/thriller conventions with a radically different voice, points-of-view and tone that defiantly challenge readers to rethink genre tropes…and more. So, what was Lawrence Block’s intent with Dead Girl Blues, clearly a very personal and eerily unsettling book that also defies many/most genre conventions, though in a very different way? Hey, don’t ask me. All I know is he wrote one hell of a disturbing book which, in its way (and an entirely different way) also insists that the reader rethink the often icky serial killer/murder/thriller conventions. I suppose it would take someone with Block’s resume to dare to put out this book. Sure, a trendy l’enfant terrible might disingenuously try it just to snag some short-lived buzz. But Lawrence Bock has nothing to prove and no need to court trendyville.
Don’t look for shoot-outs, car chases or fetishistic sexual violence-as-entertainment. I’m not sure anything is resolved when you reach the end of the last page, but you’ll be riveted from the opening, “A man walks into a bar”, and wrongly presume that you’ve been down this road before…maybe too many times.
Oh, but you haven’t.
Block’s about to take you somewhere you don’t expect to go, following the unassuming fellow beside you at the bar, next to you in the front seat of the car, behind the store counter, across the dinner table, maybe in bed with you. Hell, he could be your coworker, your boss, your neighbor or even your lover. He might be the James Thompson you think you know, or he might just be “Buddy”, and he’s done something very, very bad. Horribly, sickeningly bad. Maybe he’ll do it again. Maybe not.
There’s not a superfluous word to be found in this novel, the wordsmithing so crisp that Joe R. Lansdale called it “prose as lean as a starving model”. It’s a relatively short work that ought to have any mystery/crime fiction reader thoroughly riveted, but more so, should compel any avid reader of the oh-so-many bestselling sex-n-violence serial killer thrillers to pause and think about what they like to read – and why. Maybe that’s what Ivy Pochoda aimed to do with These Women. Maybe it’s what Block had in mind. Maybe not. But maybe it’s something we all need to ponder when we think about our reading and viewing choices.
Ivy Pochoda’s These Women. Lawrence Block’s Dead Girl Blues. Compare and contrast? I can’t, I suppose, other than having read them back-to-back. Two radically different works from two radically different writers, yet both challenge genre tropes and conventions in their own very powerful ways. So all I can say, is read these books…read them both.