Walking cliché Matt Scudder is an unorthodox ex-cop, living in the bottle and In The Midst Of Death.
Unfortunately, Lawrence Block’s alcoholic private investigator doesn’t do anything particularly unorthodox in this installment, the second of the Scudder series, published in 1976.
The setup is simple: a corrupt cop was about to blow the whistle on his department when a hooker winds up dead in his apartment and he’s thrown in jail. The cop hires Scudder to find out who framed him, assuming all his own colleagues are suspect.
Scudder investigates between mugs of coffee-topped whiskey and is generally irritable and moody, like a good alcoholic should be.
Dime a dozen
The book is like a Raymond Chandler or Mickey Spillane caper, but set in the gritty 70s and without Chandler’s noir cool or Spillane’s rough brutality. Indeed, it falls a little flat for not going thematically far enough in any direction.
The only interesting or morally questionable thing Scudder does is sleep with his client’s wife. He doesn’t break the law, aside from impersonating a plain-clothes officer with just his posture and poise; he doesn’t get rough when seeking information nor after too much liquor; he doesn’t break down in an emotional avalanche of booze and guilt.
He just goes and solves the case. And in a slightly patronising manner: several times the protagonist reveals to the reader he knows who is guilty, but he doesn’t tell us who – that’s our chapter’s cliff-hanger. Yes, it keeps us guessing, and defines the hero as an intuitive detective. But it’s frustrating – even condescending – to have someone say, “I know something you don’t know!” like an annoying child in the playground.
As an example of an alternative, in A Suitable Vengeance, St James has his revelation in the presence of the killer, which elevates the tension and the action far more than a bloke knowing whodunit and plodding off to arrest them.
When Scudder does confront his man, it falls flat – no action, no fight; just the equivalent of: “It’s a fair cop, guv.” You feel a little cheated.
Extending the endings
The story continues after the murderer is arrested for another two chapters. The first feels like filler, with nothing of any importance occurring, while the second has a twist we couldn’t care less about.
Though a few of the men are adequately moulded, the women in the book are two-dimensional, at best; I had a hard time differentiating between Diana, Trina and Elaine, because they aren’t much more than just names and have no real effect on the story, or on any of the characters involved.
But the book’s greatest failing is Scudder himself, particularly his unfulfilled potential. A private investigator skirting the law, getting deep into the underworld and not pulling his punches, an emotionally unstable man who honestly battles with his alcoholism – that would have made an interesting hero. Instead, it’s just tame, and an opportunity lost.