Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman
Lawrence Block has a straightforward style. His sentences are mostly active and declarative, written as if he is stating a simple fact, or presenting elaborations—examples or other details—substantiating his declarations. But his style is deceptive. Every sentence counts; each has a purpose, a job to do—often, several at once.
The opening sentence of his short story, “Out the Window,” anthologized in The Night and the Music, reads, “There was nothing special about her last day.” Like any declarative sentence, this one implies questions. It implies (1) who is “her”? and (2) why was there “nothing special about her last day”?, and (3) in what way was it her “last day”? Did she quit her job? Did she move? Did she leave town? Did she die? The fact that we're told that there “was nothing special about her last day” suggests that her last day is somehow significant, despite the fact that it was in no way “special.” Otherwise, why mention it at all? Indeed, why mention “her” at all? The declaration generates suspense; we want to learn more about this ordinary woman, whoever she was, and her last day.
Liam Neeson as NYPD Detective Matthew Scudder
Without identifying “her,” the narrator (Private Detective Matthew Scudder, we will learn) mentions that the woman “seemed a little jittery” and “preoccupied,” but her emotional state and her state of mind were not remarkable: “This was nothing new for Paula.” Finally, we get her name— Paula—who, it seems, was apparently “jittery” and “preoccupied” most days. Nevertheless, readers are likely to note that, despite her routine jitters and preoccupation, her behavior caught Scudder's eye; it was memorable to him, perhaps because, in retrospect, it was “her last day.”
“She was never much of a waitress in the three months she spent at Armstrong's,” the narrator declares. In the process, readers learn (1) she wasn't especially good at her job, (2) the nature of her occupation, (3) the period of her employment, and (4) her employer or place of employment. The rest of the paragraph (two longer sentences) offers examples to support the narrator's contention that Paula “was not much of a waitress”: she'd “forget” some orders and confuse others; she was inattentive; and she often performed her duties mechanically, as though she were an automaton.
She's a spirited young woman, though, the narrator suggests, generous with her smiles and able to make customers feel at ease.
In the story's fourth paragraph, the narrator supplies Paula's last name, Wittlauer, and compares her to himself: “You no more set out to be a waitress in a Ninth Avenue gin mill [Paula] than you intentionally become an ex-cop coasting through the months on bourbon and coffee [Scudder].” The narrator's sense of humor is exhibited in his statement, “We have that sort of greatness thrust upon us,” which, in its use of “us,” draws readers into the story. Scudder switches from talking only about Paula Wittlauer to including “us,” turning his monologue into a conversation.
He contrasts Paula's relative youth with his own more advanced age, through an aphorism that comments upon the point of view of one less experienced in life with that of another who is wise to the ways of the world: “When you're as young as Paula Wittlauer, you hang in there, knowing things are going to get better. When you're my age you just hope they don't get much worse.” This bonding of the two characters, victim and detective, is important, because it is Paula's death, following her otherwise uneventful “last day,” that Scudder, at the request of her sister, Ruth, investigates throughout the rest of the story.
Although I've examined only a few of the ways in which Block makes his sentences accomplish his goals as a writer, sometimes multitasking in the undertaking of double, triple, or quadruple narrative tasks, the point, I believe, has been sufficiently made. There's a reason Block has been named a Grand Master of Mystery Writers of America. His books have a lot to teach both professional and aspiring novelists and short story writers, especially those who specialize in thrillers and chillers.