OK, I know Lawrence Block’s books are pretty well-known by those interested in the PI crime genre, but I’ve re-read a few in the Matthew Scudder series recently, and they’ve lost none of their punch. In fact, I think the early volumes, such as Scudder’s debut ‘The Sins of the Fathers’ have become better over time. And I’ve read this one a few times now, trust me. I just wish publishing houses still rolled out short, 200-odd page slices of hardboiled fiction like this mini-triumph, first published in 1976.
For those unfamiliar with LB, he is one of the East Coast’s most prolific mystery writers, a winner of awards galore who has penned under various pseudonyms and in a variety of sub-genres. He cut his teeth writing erotic literature, or soft-porn as he has affectionately described it, a baptism of smut from which he learnt the admirable skill of being able to write to time, and for his first-drafts to be pretty much printable. Indeed, LB’s top-notch guide ‘Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print to Pixel’ sees him give a wonderful, self-deprecating appraisal of his career, with invaluable tips and insights into this writer’s mind. It is one of the best ‘How to…’ writing books on my shelf.
‘The Sins of the Fathers’ would definitely fall into the hardboiled genre of LB’s work, as opposed to some of his more light-hearted work, such as the Bernie Rohendenbarr series of burglar stories. There are certainly noir-elements here, but as discussed later, this is notnoir fiction as such, as Scudder is a heroic narrator with a moral backbone whose quest we are invested in from the first few pages. The book conforms to the tradition of private investigator writing in many ways, featuring a troubled ex-cop narrator, speaking in a past-tense, first-person narrative, delving into the circumstances of a young woman’s death. The Matthew Scudder we meet in this book has already crossed the invisible line from problem drinker into semi-functioning alcoholic, a descent that will become more apparent in books two and three.
In chapter one, we learn that he left the NYPD, his wife, and two boys after a stray bullet from his gun led to the tragic death of an innocent girl. Now, Scudder rents a cheap hotel room, drinks coffee with bourbon morning to night, and sometimes works informally as an investigator, tithing whatever he earns into church donation pots as an vague act of moral reparation.
We also know within a few pages of this book that we are in the company of death, and its presence beats throughout this pacey read. Indeed, two of the central characters are dead from the off – the victim and her alleged killer – and they only become real through other character’s testimonies.
But for me, the plot is secondary to Scudder’s character. Chandler drew a succinct description of the detective in hardboiled writing, and undoubtedly, Scudder conforms to this impression. Before I get to that though, let me say that one thing I particularly like about LB’s creation is a lack of visual description of the main man: we sense that Scudder is heavy-set through his comparisons with others, and know he is tough and can handle himself; but other things are left for us to decide upon. This is writing I like – refined, stripped back, left to the bare essentials.
But bare in no way means simple; on the contrary, LB has devised an intricate plot that cunningly builds tension. Information pivotal to the plot is implanted amidst Scudder’s wanderings, during which he encounters a host of fascinating secondary characters. Bearing in mind this was written in the 70s, I’m particularly taken by Scudder’s forward thinking attitude; in spite of his character defects, he is open-minded to people’s nuances, sexual orientations and predilections. Scudder is a man not at ease with an audience, hence his attempt to keep us at bay: nevertheless, he is a hero. Chandler famously described the literary detective:
‘But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man.’
Undoubtedly, Scudder fits this mould.
A common misconception in hardboiled writing is that detective fiction walks hand in hand along the same dark alleys with noir writing; on the contrary though, as Otto Penzler points out in the forward of American Noir (2009), the two sub-genres of crime are thematically opposed:
‘Noir works…are existential pessimistic tales about people who are seriously flawed and morally questionable…The private detective story is a different matter entirely.’
‘The Sins of the Fathers’ exemplified Penzler’s point, for, in Scudder, we have a damaged but heroic protagonist whose moral code forbids him from working within the hypocritical systems of the law, and whose personal demons require him to anesthetise himself each day with whiskey.
Some of you may have seen Liam Neeson portray Scudder in a rendition of ‘A Walk Amongst the Tombstones’ a few years back. For me, he was too handsome for the role – I’d have liked someone a bit rounder and rougher, maybe a young Tom Sizemore. There are also some great, unabridged Audible retellings of the Scudder books for those who’re into audiobooks.
Scudder is a reliable if somewhat unstable narrator. LB’s original plan was to write a few books, see how they went, and then in the final novel, for Scudder to be seen entering his first AA meeting. But by then, I can only presume he recognised the quality of his protagonist and decided to permit us readers to see how he copes with his sobriety journey, one day at a time. And thank God he did – for the latter Scudder books are equally as compelling, as our narrator tries putting faith in a power rather than a bottle, no easy feat when you embody a universe as unforgiving as his.
By the time we are approaching the denouement of ‘The Sins..’ which sees a scorching challenge from Scudder to the killer, we are entirely on our narrator’s side. If you like your crime gritty, told by a hardened yet remorseful narrator, these books, beginning with ‘The Sins…’ are some of the best ones out there. Nice one LB.