January 20, 2012 by Reader's Connection
I haven´t posted anything about detective Matt Scudder, this year, so I´d better get cracking. I just finished reading A Drop of the Hard Stuff, the wonderful 2011 series installment, in which author Lawrence Block does another one of his backward time-jumps.
Matt´s drinking problem, and his involvement with Alcoholics Anonymous, have played an important part throughout the series, and that’s especially true of this most recent title.
For those of you approaching Scudder for the first time, I´ll draw a helpful diagram of the 17 novels. Not all of them are currently owned by the library.
Is this working for you?
The red arrow covers the first novels in the series, in the course of which Matt consumes a great deal of alcohol. He’s is a divorced ex-cop and unlicensed private eye. (As he puts it, he does favors for people and they show their gratitude with money.)
Matt occasionally shows up at AA meetings, but he never says anything, and makes no real attempt to kick the habit. If you’re just starting the series, you should skip the first three and return to them only if you become a devotee. Not because Matt’s drinking, but because they’re not as well done as the later books.
At the end of the fifth novel, Eight Million Ways to Die, Matt speaks up at an AA meeting.
“My name is Matt,” I said, and paused, and started over. “My name is Matt,” I said, “and I’m an alcoholic.”
And then he starts crying. The beaming little sun in my diagram is a symbol for this redemptive moment. Lawrence Block thought he had finished the series.
But then he wrote a Matt story, from way back in the detective’s drinking days, and he wrapped another story around that story, and he ended up writing the first Scudder book I read, which is probably still my favorite.
I can’t remember if Matt is bothering to show up at AA meetings in the course of When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, which gives me an excuse to reread it.
It begins with an armed robbery at an “after-hours” place called Morrissey’s (“They performed a humanitarian service, the Brothers Morrissey,” someone recalls in the most recent Scudder novel. “Made sure a man didn’t die of thirst just because it was past four in the morning.”)
Then there’s the matter of a drinking buddy who is accused of murdering his wife, and there are someone’s crooked books. Matt does some favors for people, and they express their gratitude.
From this novel onward in the series, Matt will be sober, or trying to stay that way; and Ginmill is a wonderful place to jump in, with Matt looking back over his shoulder at these strange inebriated days.
In Out on the Cutting Edge, the next in the series and Matt’s first as a sober guy, he makes the acquaintance of a career criminal named Mickey Ballou.
For much of the rest of the series, Mick functions as a shadow figure for Matt. Mick drinks whiskey, while Matt sips a Coke or club soda. They engage in some violent behavior together, spend nights telling stories, and sometimes go to an early morning mass attended mostly by butchers. Lawrence Block has spoken in interview about the connection he feels with Ireland and its people. Giving Matt this Irish-American criminal as a soul mate and scapegoat is one way to help our detective stay sober.
To be real, though: Matt has a wonderful AA sponsor, Jim Faber, and–starting in the next novel–a girl friend. I shouldn’t make too much of Ballou’s powers as a shadow-guide.
The yellow line represents Matt’s path of sobriety. The red X stands for the novel in which a bottle of whiskey finds its way into Matt’s hotel room, where it torments him. I can’t remember the novel in which this happens, but I don’t think I’m making it up.
The dark 16 is my way of saying that I haven’t been able to finish All the Flowers are Dying, the sixteenth book in the series. I enjoyed A Dance at the Slaughterhouse and some of the other “vigilante” titles that repelled other readers; but the gruesomeness of Flowers has put me off, at least for now. I may be getting soft.
Some commenters on the Web speculated that Flowers would be the last in the Scudder series, and perhaps the author considered the possibility. BUT . . .
Jack Ellery, an old acquaintance of Matt’s, and himself an alcoholic, is murdered. His AA sponsor believes that the killing may have had to do with Jack’s attempt to work through the eighth of AA’s twelve steps: making amends.
The sponsor–who admits to being a real “step Nazi,” and feels responsible for having pushed Jerry too hard and getting him killed–tells Matt, “I’d like you to do me a favor.”
In the course of Matt’s investigation, alcohol once again finds its way into his hotel room. Its appearance this time is stranger and more aggressive than in the earlier (unnamed) novel.
Block may be intending to wrap the series up, but if he can go on writing books like this one by jumping around in time, I’m ready to be transported.