I recently read two of Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder books, moving through the acclaimed series in anticipation for the film version of Walk Among The Tombstones coming out this Fall. One of the books was the earlier, lesser known, In the Midst Of Death. The other was one of the more more highly praised, Eight Million Ways To Die. Both books deserve notice.
For those not familiar with Block’s Matthew Scudder, he, along with Robert B. Parker’s character, Spenser, are the most influential crime novel detectives to come out of the 1970s. Already an alcoholic, Scudder accidentally shoots a young girl while attempting to stop a robbery. After that, he dropps out of the force, gives up on his marriage, and moves into a cheap hotel and a spiritual purgatory. As a semi-functional drunk and unlicensed PI, he stumbles around with a certain grace.
As with the entire series, New York is almost another character in both books.It’s the dirty and dangerous New York of the 1970s. After the city goes bankrupt, the environment puts him in as much danger as any case he takes on. The irony is the places of safety and comfort seem to be the bars.
In The Midst Of Death sees Scudder hired by Jerry Broadfield, a whistle blowing cop charged with murdering a call girl. With little help and some interference from the NYPD, Scudder finds his investigation leading to a web of secrets and ambitions belonging to his client and their prosecutors. Many aspects of the book appear to be drawn from the life of Robert Leuci, the real life narcotics detective-turned-informer in Robert Daly’s nonfiction book, Prince Of The City, which was adapted into the Sidney Lumet film of the same name.
There is little actual violence in the book, yet a jaundiced oblivion hangs in the air. Because of what his client has done and the contempt the other cops have for him, Scudder is reminded of his own tarnished past as a law officer. The passages with Scudder and Broadfield’s wife, another lost soul, are poignant without being sentimental. It is a brief connection of two people who have lost their identity in different ways.
A murdered call girl is also at the start of the plot rolling into Eight Million Ways To Die. The victim, Sunny, had hired Matt to negotiate the break from her pimp, Chance. When she is found savagely executed with a machete, Chance hires him to find her killer. There are millions of reasons to not to take the case, but a major one compels him. Now wanting to change, Scudder needs to think about something other than drinking.
The book is actually more about addiction than murder. As Scudder questions the other prostitutes and an alcoholic cop working the case, we come across people addicted to drugs, money, sex, love, and rage. When Matt faces his own addiction head on without blinking, it is utterly moving.
In The Midst Of Death and Eight Million Ways to Die are both great examples of the jagged character arc Matthew Scudder travels in this series. Block realizes that even when you take that big step in deciding to fight your demons, the demons will often fight back. I believe these books argue that in this corrupt world it’s the fragile, broken, and discarded souls that need saving the most.