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Stamp of approval

Set aside Block of time for superb novel

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If you're not a Blockhead by now, you should be.

As in crime writer Lawrence Block, that is. Much like Elmore Leonard, Block is an ageless hipster with an uncanny eye for detail and wicked wit. Both turn out smoothly plotted tales with absurd regularity, making something difficult look easy. Trying to do what Block and Leonard do is akin to watching a bit of Wimbledon and then taking the court for a few sets with Roger Federer.

Good luck with that.

Block, who just turned 70, serves up another superb story in his latest novel, Hit and Run, the fourth entry in his series on stamp-collecting hit man Keller. Block aficionados know Keller from numerous short stories, as well, including the magnificent "Keller's Double Dribble" last year.

This time out, Keller leaves his beloved New York behind for a job (read: quick murder) in Des Moines, a job, he promises, that will be his last. Keller has built himself a $2.5 million nest egg through an unexpected foray into the financial markets, a series of killer trades he plans to take advantage of by retiring from the killing trade. He envisions an idyllic life beyond the shooting range, filled with leisurely philatelic pursuits. But, of course, there is a catch. Or seven.

Because Keller has been set up, with evidence planted on him for the killing of a leading presidential contender who just happens to be in, yes, Des Moines, when he's gunned down. Now the hunter is the hunted -- and he's running low on cash because of an impulsive stamp buy during his travels.

Just one other problem: Whoever set Keller up also provided photos of him to CNN and the rest of the incessantly gabbing media hordes, making it all but impossible for the most resourceful of hit men to get back to New York, where he believes all will be well. Unless, of course, it's not.

And how does Keller learn of the mess he's inherited? He sees his face plastered across a TV screen during a report on the political assassination. Uh-oh.

Block would have a perfectly entertaining book with that set-up alone: solid plot, good pacing and plenty of intrigue. But what separates him from the legions of mystery writers filling airport paperback racks are his characters. Block has more offshoots than Gene Roddenberry, from the Bernie Rhodenbarr series to Matthew Scudder and on to Keller. In each case, quirks and quotidian pursuits manage to turn lives intertwined with violence into an oxymoronic reading pleasure: grounded fantasy.

Consider Keller's visit to a stamp shop discovered while killing time. Block sets the scene with typical verve:

"The dealer, a tall and gaunt gentleman whose face was frozen on one side by what he had explained was Bell's palsy, gave a one-side-of-the-face chuckle."

From there, Block drags Keller -- a quintessential New Yorker -- across the country, on the lam in a stolen Sentra with little to subsist on beyond droopy fries, moldering milkshakes and matinee-movie popcorn. Finally, Block plops his anti-hero into a land of gustatory glee (New Orleans). Slowly, he begins to piece together a new life: new name, new haunts and -- dare we say it? -- a new love interest. Yes, really. And despite Keller's penchant for loner status, Block manages to make this relationship not only plausible, but entertaining.

No worries, Block isn't going soft. Instead, Keller begins to mull things over and decides he'd like to take revenge on whoever set him up in Des Moines. There is no Big Easy for hit men, right?

In the end, Keller puts his stamp on yet another smartly crafted popular novel. Free of flab, Hit and Run hits the mark again and again.

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