7% Solution Book Club to Discuss: WHEN THE SACRED GINMILL CLOSES, by Lawrence Block

WHEN THE SACRED GINMILL CLOSES

Next Monday, December 1, at 7 pm, the 7% Solution Book Club will be discussing Lawrence Block‘s modern mystery classic, When The Sacred Ginmill Closes. The 7% Solution Book Club meets the first Monday of each month at 7pm on BookPeople’s third floor. We read and discuss mysteries of all shapes, flavors and sub-genres. Our selection for January’s meeting is Barry Lyga‘s young adult mystery I Hunt Killers. This past month, we read Lori Rader-Day‘s magnificent debut novel, The Black Hour.

Lawrence Block is one of the most renowned and prolific authors writing today, making him to modern America what Georges Simenon was to mid-century France. Block is best known for two series in particular; one starring the hard-boiled private eye Matthew Scudder, and the other focusing in on the exploits of gentleman burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr.

Matthew Scudder, over a long series, is a constantly evolving character. In Block’s first few novels with the character, Scudder plays pretty much the same part – alcoholic ex-cop earning a living from doing “favors for friends” and drinking heavily each night. Block’s fifth Scudder novel, Eight Million Ways to Die, breaks the pattern, with Scudder introducing himself at an Alcoholics Anonymous Meeting as the novel’s conclusion. Scudder’s struggle with his alcoholism and his involvement with AA remain major themes throughout the rest of Block’s work in the series, and Scudder never touches another drop.

When The Sacred Ginmill Closes, like The Long Goodbye, is a novel about friendship before it is about murder, and about alcohol long before it is about friendship. Like Block chose to write When the Sacred Ginmill Closes as a flashback novel, told from the perspective of a recovered alcoholic about a case from his drinking days, and this lends the novel an aura of nostalgia that makes the book feel timeless. The novel opens with Scudder describing his favorite watering holes, and both cases Matthew goes on to solve involve either drinking buddies or bartenders.

In the course of the novel, Scudder takes on two cases. One of Matthew’s friends, a regular at the same bar, asks him with help investigating his wife’s murder, while another friend, a bartender, enlists his aid recovering some stolen goods. Scudder works hard on the case in between drinking bouts, and the novel draws to a complex and satisfying conclusion.

Block’s style is smooth; his characters speak eloquently and timelessly. The book may have been written in 1986, but it takes place in Anytime Noir New York. His dialogue is stylish and snappy, and his characters can as easily talk philosophy or folk music as kill a man – that is to say, it is easy for them to do both.


Come to BookPeople’s third floor next Monday, December 1, at 7 pm, for a discussion of this excellent read. We will also have a free wheeling discussion of Lawrence Block and his works in general. The 7% Solution Book Club meets the first Monday of each month. Copies of When the Sacred Ginmill Closes are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.

Crime Fiction Friday: LET’S GET LOST by Lawrence Block

crime scene

If you’ve read my review or talked to me lately, you know I’ve become a huge fan of the adaptation of Lawrence Block’s Walk Among The Tombstones. For fans of the the New York PI, Matt Scudder, here’s a short story involving Matt from when he worked for the NYPD that appeared on the Mulholland Books website. Block gives the reader a good sense of what his hero’s morals were like at the time.

“LET’S GET LOST” by Lawrence Block

“When the phone call came I was parked in front of the television set in the front room, nursing a glass of bourbon and watching the Yankees.  It’s funny what you remember and what you don’t.  I remember that Thurman Munson had just hit a long foul that missed being a home run by no more than a foot, but I don’t remember who they were playing, or even what kind of a season they had that year.

I remember that the bourbon was J. W. Dant, and that I was drinking it on the rocks, but of course I would remember that.  I always remembered what I was drinking, though I didn’t always remember why…”

Click here to read the full story.

BOOK TO SCREEN: A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES

a walk among the tombstones
A Walk Among The Tombstones is a movie many crime fiction fans have been waiting for. It is one of the more admired books from Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder series, and one of the touchstones of modern private eye writing. The adaptation was placed into the hands of writer-director Scott Frank, who is responsible for two of the best Elmore Leonard adaptations out there (Get Shorty and Out Of Sight), while his directorial debut, The Lookout, is one of the best crime films of this century so far. On paper, it was a tantalizing match, but there were also some reasons for trepidation. The book is the seventh in the series with Scudder in mid-transition, making it an odd choice to adapt to film. It is also close to 400 pages with an important sub-plot involving Matt’s girlfriend, Elaine, that contributes to that arc. On top of that, you have a lead character who is incredibly internal. After viewing the film and especially thinking about it after, one realizes that Scudder was in the right hands.

The film starts with a well executed and defining gunfight for Scudder. Then, after one of the most disturbing opening credit sequences you’ll see, the plot begins much like the book. Scudder, an unlicensed P.I. and recovered alcoholic (one of the main differences in the movie is he quits the day after that shoot-out) is approached by a fellow AA member to work for his brother. The brother, a drug trafficker, paid a ransom for his kidnapped wife, only to have her returned in pieces, wrapped like butcher meat. He wants Scudder to find the men responsible and bring them to him. Matt turns him down first, but takes the job, realizing the perpetrators are psychopaths, in it for the hunt and torture, and that they will do it again.

Most of the changes from page to screen come from Scott Frank’s compression of the tale to reach a manageable running time. A sharp bit of craftsmanship comes in reshaping a part of the book where a witness mistakenly believes there was a third suspect during the abduction of an earlier victim. Instead of this, Scott creates an unsettling yet utterly human character who gives Scudder three leads in one scene, though it took Scudder close to hundred pages to gather these in the book. Frank also had to jettison two supporting characters, a hooker who survived the psychos and the lawyer who represents her. Both alone are worth picking up the novel for.

Another character missing is Elaine, the call girl Scudder is at the start of the relationship with. She helps Matt in the investigation and his involvement with her marks a particular turning point in the series. It is in this book where Scudder makes the choice to truly connect with someone again or not.

Here, Scott Frank does something interesting. Instead of using the arc from the book, he tackles a small step in Scudder’s stumbling soul search. This is dealt with in his relationship with T.J., a street kid who acts as Matt’s Baker Street Irregular, portrayed without sentimentality by Brian “Astro” Bradley. He also uses a device employed by Block, where the shoot outside the bar becomes clearer as Scudder tells it in a more honest way. We’re seeing a man as he begins to realize his position in the dark world he has chosen for himself.

Fans will truly appreciate Liam Neeson’s performance. The actor allows his presence and natural gravitas do much of the work for him as he underplays with a worn and weary edge. He and Frank take a cue from the author, realizing the hero’s complexity’s and subtle contradictions, they simply let the character run and let the audience, like the reader, bring themselves to him. Early on we get to witness Scudder’s detached realism when he is asked if the corruption on NYPD made him quit the force and Neeson delivers the line. “No, I couldn’t have supported my family without it,” with perfect tone. At that point, we know we have our Scudder.

A Walk Among The Tombstones is a harsh film. I flinched at things I knew were coming from having read the book. With little gore and violence, we get the the the full impact of the very mean streets this private eye walks down. Much like Lawerence Block’s series, it pulls no punches, telling a very adult story and treating its audience as such. That alone makes it a film worth supporting.

3 Picks for August

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MysteryPeople’s 3 Picks for August

As the summer winds down, we often end up wondering where the time went. To keep us from wistfully looking back at what could have been, we’ve assembled three picks to look forward to this month…

 

after i'm goneAFTER I’M GONE by Laura Lippman

One of the best books of this past year is soon to be in paperback. Laura Lippman uses a cold murder case tried to an even older missing person’s  one to look at family, feminism, and class over fifty years. One of the smartest and unique books I’ve read in recent memory.
Paperback to be released 8/12

 

 

a walk among the tombstonesA WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES by Lawrence Block

This title is finally due to be back in print before the September release of the film version. One of the best of the Matthew Scudder series, with the unlicensed PI facing some of the darkest of human  behavior when he takes on a kidnapping case. Scudder set the template for the likes of Dennis Lehane and Reed Farrel Coleman.
New edition to be released 8/26

 

THE GOOD LIFE by Frank Wheeler Jr.

NewPulp gives us another great debut to be released this month. This tale of a young man taking his fathers job as sheriff of a corrupt Midwest town is violent, poetic, and utterly human. Fans of Frank Bill and Jim Thompson will love it.
Release date to be announced

Guest Post by David Hansard

 

The First Novel of a Lonely Writer
Guest Post by David Hansard

When you see someone’s “first” novel on a shelf, what most readers (unless they’re also writers) don’t realize is that the book they’re looking at is almost never the writer’s actual first novel. Most wrote one, two, sometimes more, complete novels that ended up in the trash or on a shelf. When you start a book, of course, that’s not what you’re thinking. You will think your story is special and unique and that you may never come up with another idea that’s so terrific. It almost never works that way, but it helps to think it will. If you don’t believe in your book, you’ll never finish it.

A friend of mine, now a regular New York Times bestseller, wrote three novels that ended up in the bottom of a file cabinet. He eventually wrote one he thought was a Western, and a standalone. The publisher decided it was a mystery, and a series. He’s now about to publish the fifteenth in the series.

Another wrote two that were a (self-described) “mess.” Her third became her first published novel. She’s written three more in the series, and her next will be a standalone.

It is essential that you have the basic ability to write, but natural talent doesn’t teach you how to weave your words together into an 80,000 word–give or take–novel. You get that in a couple of ways. The first is by trying to do it, seeing what works, what doesn’t, and trying again. The other is by reading. Writing makes you a different sort of reader. You will constantly be looking at why a story affects you in a certain way, why you can’t quit turning pages, or why you have to force yourself to turn pages. There are a lot of books on writing, but the ones that benefitted me the most were Ann Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD, Annie Dillard’s THE WRITING LIFE, and—at the top of my list—Lawrence Block’s TELLING LIES FOR FUN AND PROFIT. (One of my all-time favorite mysteries is Block’s EIGHT MILLION WAYS TO DIE).

One of the sticky wickets of novel writing is the title. My first, ONE MINUTE GONE, was originally called THE UNIVERSE OF THINGS. A fairly well known crime fiction agent (not mine) told me, “You’ve got to change it. It doesn’t sound like a mystery.” He was right, and I did, a time or two. Finally, working with my own agent, we came up with ONE MINUTE GONE, which relates to what happens in the story. My second in the series, which will be out this summer, is called BLUE-EYED BOY. I’m not planning on changing that one, but until it’s on sale, you never know.

As published, ONE MINUTE GONE is around 75,000 words, 332 pages. The first draft was 125,000 words. One agent who liked it, said, “Cut it in half.” After I did, she didn’t like it as much. It wasn’t that I cut the wrong things, but some of the things I cut made the story lose flavor, and some of the characters weren’t as fully developed and complex as in the longer version. The solution was not to put back what I had taken out, but to make sure that elements critical to character hadn’t been lost. I had to find succinct ways of including those. You can spend a page explaining that a character is fastidious and obsessive. Or you can do it in a few words of dialogue and a bit of action.

Example: Without taking his eyes from mine, he picked a piece of lint from my jacket. “There,” he said, “all better.”

I would like to be able to tell you that having learned your lessons from a first novel, your second will be easier. It won’t. Each story is unique, and each time you will set the bar higher.

One of the best things I did was get know other writers, through organizations like Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime (not just for women, though it started out that way), through writing groups, and by going to conferences like Bouchercon and Left Coast Crime. The panels can be interesting, but the real action is in the bar. After all, we’re talking about writers, here.

Writing is not merely a lonely experience, it’s solitary confinement. If you’re part of a community of writers, it’s solitary confinement with a lot of other people who are also in solitary confinement. One thing you will quickly learn is that unlike those in other professions, writers, even close friends, are not usually inclined to share much about a work-in-progress. There’s something about discussing your WIP, at least in any detail, that let’s the air out of the balloon, so to speak. There’s an adage: If you talk it, you won’t write it. While writers may not share the details of what they’re working on, most are still willing to share their daily agony and perpetual frustration, generally over a drink. Or two, or ten. For me, and for most I know, friends who are writers are an essential part of the creative process. Writing is too lonely a thing to do alone.


David Hansard will be here TOMORROW, 6/5 at 7PM speaking and signing copies of One Minute Gone. He will be joined by bestselling author, Matthew Quirk, who will also be signing his latest, The Directive. Books are available on our shelves at BookPeople and via bookpeople.com.

MysteryPeople Review: BORDERLINE by Lawrence Block

borderline
Borderline by Lawrence Block
Reviewed by Molly

Lawrence Block is one of noir’s most prolific writers, and his more than fifty novels cover all kinds of sub-genres. His latest contribution to society, Borderline, is a relic of the early fifties porn paperback industry and takes place in the alcohol-soaked hipster paradise of Juárez. This book has aged exceedingly well. The innuendo for a more conservative time now reads like a sly, welcome relief from the bluntness of a less-censored industry. Block’s stylish, stripped-down prose does not detract from the power of his erotic moments but instead seamlessly incorporates them into the overall narrative.

Borderline
reads like a sexier, more disturbing On the Road. Characters speak in hip slang at cool coffeehouses and sexual proclivities of all kinds are not only tolerated, but encouraged. The story takes place over a few days and not too much happens. There are a couple murders,here and there, and a lot of sex without a whole lot of love, but the story carries with it a strong beatnik vibe that fits its picaresque narrative perfectly.

A divorcee, a runaway, a professional gambler, a jaded sex worker, and a serial killer see their paths cross in the steamy bars and permissive atmosphere of life across the border from a puritanical post-war America. Some characters are lucky to meet each other, others not so much. Descriptions of the sex industry combine with the homicidal urges of a stalker to portray a world none too friendly to women, but the female characters hold their own in dialogue and moxie.

In Borderline, Block has created a fascinating critique of Cold War conformity. In the taboo-free zone of Juárez, his characters find outlets to satisfy their pent-up urges, and the consequences are tragic and inevitable. In particular, the story’s resident serial killer is egged on in his obsessions by horror comics, and believes he is justified in committing murder as it elevates his victims out of obscurity.

Included in the volume are three short stories showcasing Block’s talent for the nasty, brutal and short as his characters occupy a Hobbesian world of endless struggle and arbitrary violence. Each story is a self-contained gem that reads well on its own or with the others. Add Borderline to your list of hard-boiled classics.


You can order copies of Borderline now via bookpeople.com, or, find the book on our shelves in-store at BookPeople.

3 Picks for May

 

 

The Three by Sarah Lotz

There’s been a lot of buzz around this story of three children who survive four simultaneous plane crashes. Sarah Lotz takes a unique approach to the suspense thriller, looking at religion, media, and fear in the modern world. This could be one of the most talked about books of the summer.

Natchez Burning by Greg Iles

The wait for a Greg Iles book is over. His Penn Cage character is now town mayor, but when a local nurse is murdered and his father becomes a suspect, Cage becomes determined to prove his father’s innocence. Penn’s quest for the truth sends him deep into his father’s past, where a sexually charged secret lies waiting to tear their family apart. A comeback for the king of the Southern-set thriller.

Borderline by Lawrence Block

Our friends at Hard Case Crime have unearthed another Block tale. This one deals with the collision of several scheming and desperate characters in a sleazy town between El Paso and Juárez. The book also contains some short stories that appeared in classic magazines like Manhunt. Another work from one of our most acclaimed and highly decorated living mystery writers.