In addition to writing fiction, I've spent the last quarter century reading fiction for anthologies I've edited or co-edited. Pretty cool duty given my affection for the short story.
Occasionally I'll pick up an anthology I had a hand in and reread some of the stories. Most of them hold up pretty well. A few don't read quite as well as they did originally but even more interesting--a few of them are masterpieces I failed to recognize as such at the time.
Lawrence Block's "With a Smile For The Ending" was first published in 1966 and I've never had the opportunity to republish it. I know I must have read it. Block is one of a handful of writers I hold as idols. But I must have read it in the period after I leapt off the roof of a thirty-story building and landed on my head, thus temporarily damaging my fragile literary sensibilities. I liked it but I didn't l-o-v-e it.
But last night as I read it I realized how rich it is in character, how masterful it is in structure and how apt it is in its observations about life, literature and death.
A young Irisher named Tim Riordan signs on as the work companion of dying novelist Joseph Cameron Bane. Riordan is thrilled with the job because he has long loved Banes' novels about life in this small town where Riordan now lives. The murder of a woman stirs Bane from his ongoing boozy stupor. These are the people he'd written about for decades (though he stopped writing some years ago) and he knows that somewhere in his town there is a murderer.
At this point Block cleverly sets up a Nero Wolfeian-Archie Goodwin situation. Riordan goes into town to dig up all the information he can on the men Bane has listed as suspects and Riordan then reports his facts and observations back to his employer. It is during these conversations that Block really shines. He's always struck me as particularly wise about the human condition and his wisdom is on full display here as Bane discusses what he sees as his failed literary life and his sensible if melancholy thoughts about death.
"With A Smile For An Ending" is Block ten years into his career. Everything is in place including the magnificent sentences and the stubborn need to look beyond the trite to the truth.