Shotgun Blast From The Past: Double Barrels of Block

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.

MysteryPeople Review: ONE MINUTE GONE: A PORTER HALL NOVEL

One Minute Gone

One Minute Gone begins when our lead Porter Hall, a successful businessman living with his twin son and daughter in New York, receives three phone calls. One is about finalizing his divorce; the second is about his soon-to-be-ex being committed; the last is his friend Jamie, making a lunch date. When Jamie doesn’t turn up to lunch, all three calls quickly become tied to the mysterious plot of an unknown enemy to put Porter in prison.

The conspiracy working against him is complex and works on many different levels. As Porter begins to untangle the mystery to find out who his real enemy is, he discovers links to old alliances, big business, family politics, and the mob. Though complex in nature, Hansard’s clean writing style allows the reader to navigate the many twists and turns easily.

He also draws us in with the use of an engaging everyman hero. Porter Hall’s rugged individualism from his Wyoming upbringing is paired with a New York slickness and wit. We can immediately identify with him as a man and a father who wants to be left alone with those he loves, which in turn only strengthens the empathy we feel at the horrible intrusion he has suffered. He has an innate decency and believable set of skills that help him move through ever-tightening circumstances.

Hansard also uses the city of New York itself as a character, though at times his portrayal feels like a western landscape, mixing the two the elements in interesting ways. Like a seasoned cowboy, Porter navigates the city and uses it to his advantage. It’s difficult to picture this story taking place anywhere else.

One Minute Gone is a brilliant debut. It is accessible and engaging with a hero worth investing in. I look forward to Porter Hall getting into more trouble.

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Copies of One Minute Gone are available on our shelves at BookPeople and via bookpeople.com

New York State of Mind

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Our Pick Of The Month, Crooked Numbers by Tim O’Mara, uses New York City as a rich canvas. His hero, Ray Donne, is a man involved deeply with his city and its citizens. When we asked Tim to give us five of his favorite New York novels, his respnse was, “Only Five?” Here they are in no particular order.

purchase here12 Angry Men by Reginald Rose, David Mamet

“Not a book, but a play, which we still teach at my middle school — 12 Angry Men. Reginald Rose created a dozen NY men who could not be more different than each other and stuck them in a hot jury room to decide the life and death of a kid they didn’t know. In the midst of this drama, the city is calling to each of them from outside; some hear the call as a reason to just get through the decision as quickly as they can and others as a call for justice. You never “see” the city in the play, but it’s there inside each of these men.”

purchase hereWhen the Sacred Ginmill Closes by Lawrence Block

“When the Sacred Ginmill Closes was my introduction to Lawrence Block and Matt Scudder. There are bodies, thieves, New York baddies and weirdos galore, but it’s a story of a man who begins to realize he doesn’t like himself when he’s drinking–and he’s always drinking. I admire the was Block shows his respect for this deeply flawed character; and throughout the story, and other Scudder books that followed, slowly allowed Scudder to redeem himself.”

Slow Motion Riot by Peter Blauner

Peter Blauner’s Slow Motion Riot floored me. His “hero” is a probation officer–with a liking for the booze, as well–who gets caught up in an out-of-control situation involving one of his parolees, who just happens to be a violent sociopath. Blauner gives us an insider’s view into one of NYC’s more dysfunctional agencies and the politics behind it.

purchase hereBodega Dreams by Ernesto Quinonez

Bodega Dreams by Ernesto Quinonez taught me not only how to write cliché-free about life in the projects, but also how to make fiction read like memoir. Quinonez poured his heart and soul–corazon y alma–into this book and I’d love to sit with him one day and talk about the “real” parts of this book and those he made up.

purchase herepurchase hereFranny and Zooey  and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction by J. D. Salinger

And, to get away from the crime stuff, JD Salinger’s Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction. Short stories by one of the masters of the form. These stories are better–more laser like–than Catcher in the Rye. Here Salinger’s taking snapshots of the people and the places–mostly wealthy–he knows well. Not all the stories take place in NYC, but the city runs through these characters’ blood.