RARA-AVIS: Lawrence Block month -- Matthew Scudder

From: DJ-Anonyme@webtv.net
Date: 02 Nov 2007

Lawrence Block is probably best known for his Matthew Scudder series, still going strong after 16 books in 31 years.

Introduced with 1976's The Sins of the Father, Scudder was a drunken ex-cop who did favors for friends, and friends of friends, for a consideration. That he sees his work as penance is made clear by his tithing, dropping 10% of his earnings in the first poor box he runs across, even though he is not at all religious. That it mostly goes to the Catholic Church is merely because their sanctuaries are open longer hours.

Scudder is seeking penance for killing a young girl with a stray bullet while shooting at an escaping felon (who was unfortunate/stupid enough to try to rob a bar where the cop was drinking). Everyone regards it as a tragic accident, but Scudder cannot get over it and quits the force. Soon, he also walks away from his marriage.

Scudder is hardly the first guiltridden and/or drunken unlicensed PI. He owes more than a bit to Ed McBain's Curt Cannon (or Matt Cordell, depending upon which edition you read) and Tucker Coe's (AKA Westlake) Mitch Tobin. However, Block makes the character his own.

Some believe the series was at its best in the first four books: The Sins of the Father, Time to Murder and Create, In the Midst of Death and A Stab in the Dark. Scudder was still a drunk and it always seemed uncertain whether or not he would get off his bar stool to go knock on doors. He's old school in his investigations, knocks on doors and talks to people, gleaning info and putting it together. And those doors are all over New York City. It's a cliche to say it, but New York really is a character in this series. And Block knows NY intimately.

Others, including me, think the series reached a new level with the next book, Eight Million Ways to Die. There, Scudder is forced to confront his drinking. The personal lives of PIs are too often padding in contemporary series. Here they are the meat, not to say Block ever neglects plot or suspense.

It took Block some time to figure out where to go from there. In fact, he sidestepped the issue in the next book, by setting When the Sacred Ginmill Closes in the past when Scudder was still drinking. This is also the book that introduces his buddy Mick Ballou, an Irish gangster who appears in varying degrees in most of following 16 books, all after Scudder started working the AA program.

In those books, Scudder ages more or less in real time, 25 years over the 31 year series. And Scudder gets more respectable. Eventually, he even gets a PI license.

Some complain that the series has lost its edge with Scudder's respectability, but we keep reading. And Block continues to experiment within the series.

If you've never read the series, I'd advise starting with Eight Million Ways to Die or When the Sacred Ginmill closes. But, as I noted above, others would recommend the earlier books.

In fact, that might be a good place to start the discussion of this series: Which part of the series is best? Why?

Other discussion questions:

How do respectability and/or age affect a hardboiled hero?

How does a series stay fresh over a long run?

What is the proper balance between a hero's personal life and the investigation?


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