FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins


   Let’s pretend we’re playing Jeopardy!, shall we? The category is Mystery Writers. Here’s the clue. This well-known crime novelist’s first short story appeared in January 1958, when he was nineteen, and today, more than sixty years later, he’s still active.

   The question, as every reader of this column should know, is: Who is Lawrence Block? In the PI world, which is all we’re concerned with here, his main claim to fame is the New York-based eye-without-a-license Matthew Scudder. Over the decades I reviewed many of the Scudder novels for the old St. Louis Globe-Democrat,but I’ve never covered the first three in the series. Isn’t it about time I did?

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   At the beginning of The Sins of the Fathers (Dell pb #7991, 1976), Scudder is in a bar, meeting what, if he were licensed, we could call a potential client, a moneyed entrepreneur from upstate New York whose estranged daughter was recently slashed to death with a razor in the West Village. According to all the evidence the murderer was the young man with whom she shared a Bethune Street apartment, a minister’s son, who came out onto the street covered in her blood and confessed to the crime before hanging himself in his jail cell.

   The dead woman’s father, apparently on some sort of guilt trip, hires Scudder to find out more about the last years of her life. We then follow the unlicensed eye as he methodically gathers information, learning much about various people whose lives touched one or the other of the youthful dead. Finally he connects the dots to form a picture radically at odds with what seems to have happened.

   “The Scudder series was conceived as a series and contracted for as a series,” Block told interviewer Ernie Bulow, adding that the first three novels about the character were written “in ’74 or ’75—or maybe they were all in ’74, I’m not sure.” Ross Macdonald was still alive at the time but near the end of his career, and Dell, the original publisher of the series, promoted Block’s protagonist as “New York’s answer to Lew Archer.”

   The comparison makes some sense. Both Macdonald in his later novels and Block in his first Scudder novel deal centrally with dysfunctional families, and both the early Scudder and the late Archer are in some sense psychiatrists manqués. But as we follow Scudder’s information-gathering we’re also reminded of Hammett, especially of the longer Continental Op stories like “The Girl with the Silver Eyes.”

   There is, however, a huge difference. The Op’s step-by-step investigations tend to morph into violent action scenes whereas, at least in The Sins of the Fathers , there’s no shadowy “player on the other side” determined to prevent the protagonist from learning the truth and therefore no violence, except for the scene in Chapter 12 where Scudder momentarily becomes a Mike Hammer figure, breaking the fingers of a teen-age mugger’s right hand.

   The scene is irrelevant to the plot and may have been inserted simply because Block or the publisher decided there had to be violence somewhere in the book.

   That would explain the violence but wouldn’t account for the pervasive element that makes The Sins of the Fathers all but unique in PI fiction: religion. The title comes from a number of Biblical verses—Deuteronomy 5:9-10, Exodus 20:5-6, Numbers 14:18—on the theme that the fathers’ sins are visited upon the children.

   Then in the book’s first paragraph we find: “[T]he full effect of his face was as a blank stone tablet waiting for someone to scratch commandments on it.” In the same scene Scudder reminds us that “Cain said he wasn’t Abel’s keeper” and proceeds to explain to his potential client why he quit the NYPD after fifteen years.

   “I lost the faith.”

   “Like a priest?”

   “Something like that.”

   As he explains a few pages later, his quitting had nothing to do with religion:

   “I was off duty one night in the summer. I was in a bar in Washington Heights where cops didn’t have to pay for their drinks. Two kids held up the place. On their way out they shot the bartender in the heart. I chased them into the street. I shot one of them dead and caught the other in the thigh….One shot went wide and ricocheted. It caught a seven-year-old girl in the eye…and it went right on into her brain. They tell me she died instantly….Then I resigned. I just didn’t want to be a cop anymore.”

   Why then did Block throw in that religious reference? Obviously because it was meaningful to him.

   At the end of the chapter Scudder shares with us one of the habits he picked up since leaving the force: ;

   I tithe. I don’t know why. It’s become a habit, as indeed it has become my habit to visit churches….

   I like churches. I like to sit in them when I have things to think about….

   The Catholics get more of my money than anybody else. Not that I’m partial to them, but because they put in longer hours….

   Later, when he interviews the minister who was the dead boy’s father, their dialogue is filled with religious allusions:

   “Are you a Christian, Mr. Scudder?”

   “No.”

   “A Jew?”

   “I have no religion.”

   “How sad for you….Do you believe in good and evil, Mr. Scudder?”

   “Yes, I do.”

   “Do you believe that there is a such a thing as evil extant in the world?”

   “I know there is.”

   “So do I….It would be difficult to believe otherwise, whatever one’s religious outlook. A glance at a daily newspaper provides enough evidence of the existence of evil.”

   In Chapter 14, near the end of the novel, Scudder picks up a Lives of the Saints book he keeps in his hotel room—name one other PI in fiction who’d be likely to have that sort of volume handy!—and recounts for us the story of St. Maria Goretti, who chose to be stabbed to death rather than submit to rape, and of her killer who after 27 years in prison knelt beside the girl’s mother to receive Communion. “I always find something interesting in that book,” he says, although its relevance to the plot remains, dare I say it, a mystery.

    Just one page later, sipping bourbon-laced coffee in a bar, he reflects on the start of the chain of events he’s become involved in. “Maybe it was Eve’s fault, messing around with apples. Dangerous thing, giving humanity the knowledge of good and evil….” In Chapter 15, just before exposing the murderer, he tells the story of the akedah, Abraham’s obedience to God’s demand that he offer his only son Isaac as a human sacrifice, an allusion that is definitely relevant. And, just before the end of the novel, Scudder tells his adversary, whose suicide he’s about to enable, that he regards suicide as a sin:

   “….If I didn’t I probably would have killed myself years ago. There are worse sins.”

   “Murder?”

   “That’s one of them.”

   For one who has no religion, Scudder certainly has a lot to say about the subject. The religious dimension is less important in the later novels about him, although he continues his tithing habit and also makes a practice of attending the so-called Butchers’ Mass with his friend the stone killer Mick Ballou.

   But religion is only one fascinating aspect of The Sins of the Fathers . Another is alcohol. Clearly Scudder has a drinking problem, precipitated by the same incident that caused him to leave the NYPD and his wife and young sons and burrow into a shell. But he’s not an alcoholic. We have his word for it:

   “When did you ever see me drunk?”

   “Never. And I never saw you when you weren’t drinking.”

   “It’s a nice middle ground.”

   Eventually he’ll identify as an alcoholic and join AA, which figures as prominently in some later Scudders as religion does in this one.

   And there’s yet a third recurring theme: vigilantism. In Chapter 14, right after telling us about Maria Goretti, Scudder is discussing his present case with Trina, his barmaid buddy and casual sex partner, when he suddenly changes the subject to a crime he’d investigated back in his days as a cop, the rape and brutal murder of a 20-year-old woman.

   Scudder and his partner knew instinctively who was guilty but he’d covered himself too well. “…[W]e knew he did it, see, and it was driving us crazy.” Scudder’s partner wanted to “kill him and set him in cement and drop him somewhere in the Hudson.” Scudder, however, “thought of something better.” He framed the murderer as a major heroin dealer and had him put away for 10 to 20 years. In the third year of his sentence “he got in a grudge fight with another inmate and got stabbed to death.”

   Instantly, if we know our Cornell Woolrich, we’re reminded of one of his darkest Noir Cop stories, “Three Kills for One” (Black Mask, July 1942; collected in Night and Fear, 2004). Whether Block was familiar with this story remains unknown but, if he wasn’t, he reinvented it, especially in his Edgar-winning story “By the Dawn’s Early Light” (Playboy, August 1984; collected in Some Days You Get the Bear, 1993), which he later expanded into the Scudder novel When the Sacred Ginmill Closes (1986).

   Far more often than most other private eyes, except of course for Mike Hammer and his pedissequi (which means followers in another’s footsteps. God how I love that word!), Scudder goes outside the law to obtain justice or revenge or closure or whatever you want to call it. In some of the later Scudder novels we find Block turning handsprings as he works out new ways for his protagonist to exact private vengeance. William Ruehlmann’s Saint with a Gun came out in 1974, two years or so before Scudder’s debut, but if the book had been published in the late Seventies or the Eighties it would certainly have taken account of Block’s protagonist as one of the more serious specimens of what Ruehlmann called “the unlawful American private eye.”

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   I was planning to cover all three of the earliest Scudders in a single column but, having gotten carried away by the first, I’ll need to reserve the other two for next month. Please join me then. And if you’re going to the Bouchercon in Dallas, feel free to say hello to me. I’ll be the old bum with the cane.