Reviewed by Elizabeth White
Though probably most well-known to the casual reader for his Matt Scudder and Bernie Rhodenbarr series, Lawrence Block also has a long tradition of writing short stories (his collection Enough Rope contains 83 of them), and another of his well known characters, the hitman Keller, originated as an ongoing short story feature in Playboy Magazine.
In Block’s contribution to The Best American Noir of the Century, “Like a Bone in the Throat,” we meet the cast of two, William Charles Croydon and Paul Dandridge, at Croydon’s murder trial where he is convicted of killing Dandridge’s sister and sentenced to death. In order to amuse himself while on death row Croydon begins exchanging correspondence with the misguided women who send him fan letters, manipulating them into sending him revealing photos and their darkest sexual fantasies.
Soon, however, toying with women so willing to do whatever he asks of them loses the ability to excite Croydon, so he decides to write a letter to Dandridge. When Dandridge doesn’t respond, Croydon writes him again. And again. After ignoring the letters initially, Dandridge finally can’t help himself and begins writing back. The story’s set up is told through traditional prose, but the bridge is revealed via a sampling of the letters between Croydon and Dandridge, a technique that is very effective in conveying the intensity of their exchanges.
Block’s build up to the inevitable conclusion – about which I will be vague so as not to spoil it – is deliciously slow and sweet, a perfect reflection of the deliberateness with which Croydon and Dandridge attempt to manipulate each other with nothing but words on paper – much like Block with the reader – over the course of many years. Suffice it to say, the ending of “Like a Bone in the Throat” is like a kick in the teeth.
A cautionary tale of the life changing power of both hate and forgiveness, “Like a Bone in the Throat” is truly a thing of noir beauty from one of America’s masters.
Note: “Like a Bone in the Throat” was used as the (loose) basis for the 2007 French-language film Counter-Investigation (AKA Contre-Enquête).
Elizabeth White reviews books at Musings of an All Purpose Monkey.