Meet Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder

I’m a Lawrence Block fan from way back in the day. I loved Bernie Rhodenbarr and Keller, and I gobbled up Block’s non-fiction like a starving tiger pouncing on meat. (He was my guru while I was learning to write) I didn’t like Matthew Scudder. I read one or two of the Scudder novels, but they weren’t to my taste, so I read other things.

Fast forward to today. Some of Block’s publishers are reissuing the Scudder novels as ebooks. Block, himself, has the rights back to several and is releasing them as ebooks and POD (print on demand). He even wrote some new Scudder short stories and bundled them with previously published short stories and released the collection as The Night and the Music.

In short order I’ve read The Sins Of The Fathers, A Stab In The Dark, A Walk Among The Tombstones, and A Long Line Of Dead Men. I have found my new best favorite series character. (and acquired a long list of novels to buy and read, since I very much intend to read every book in the series)

So how, you might ask, did a “not to your taste” character turn into a favorite? Simple. When I first read the Scudder books I was a young mother and Scudder was too dark, his world too ugly. At the time I needed assurance that the world wasn’t a very bad place. I couldn’t see the message of hope. Now I can because my outlook has changed.

I asked Mr. Block if he had researched PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) before writing The Sins Of The Fathers. Mr. Block said he hadn’t. Back in 1970s the term wasn’t common and possibly not even in use. That’s doubly interesting because any psychiatrist would look at Scudder’s reaction to a devastating trauma and declare Scudder a textbook case.

The man is lost. Deliberately so. Scudder accidentally killed a child. Even though it was an accident, even though he was assured by his superiors in the police department that it was an accident, the trauma bruised Scudder’s soul. Scudder’s reaction? He decided to un-become. He un-became a police officer. He un-became a husband and a father. In some ways he un-became a member of society by taking up residence in a hotel and not looking for steady employment. He says he is not a private investigator. He will not get a license. He won’t set a price on his services. Instead, he does favors and accepts “gifts” in return. He even denies he is making any attempts at atonement, but he is. He tithes to churches and locks his heart in solitary confinement.

Ooh, that makes him sound like a sad sack, doesn’t it? He’s not. Not at all. In fact, he’s the opposite of a sad sack. Instead of self-absorbed self-pity, Scudder is trying to shove himself away. He actively resists finding his way back by drinking and living a ghost-like existence. Despite his desire to not-be, he’s on a journey anyway. A long, difficult journey. The survivor inside forces him along whether he consciously wants to or not. He does it by doing for others what he refuses to do for himself.

Most curiously, Mr. Block had not originally intended for that to happen. In Afterthoughts, his collection of essays about his writing, he says:

That was never part of the agenda back in 1973. I figured Scudder, like almost all characters in genre fiction, would remain essentially the same for as long as I wrote about him. He wouldn’t age, nor would he alter his behavior. He’d keep his seat at that back table in Jimmy Armstrong’s saloon, and he’d drink his whiskey neat or stir it into his coffee, depending on the hour or his mood or the phase of the moon. For heaven’s sake, why should he change?

I’m not sure he had much choice.

No, he didn’t. Once a journey is begun, it has to end somehow. With a character as complex as Scudder, he will find an end, one way or another, because taking a situation to its end is who he is–even when he has to come sideways at truths too difficult to look at straight on.

I thought of poor old Bandersnatch, always game to chase a stick or go for a walk. He’d bring one of his toys to you to signal his eagerness to play. If you just stood there he’d drop it your feet, but if you tried to take it away from him he’d set his jaw and hang on grimly.

Maybe I’d learned it from him.

from A Stab In The Dark

Most curious to me, is that Scudder is not very likeable. When I make the mistake of thinking him likeable, he does something shitty to remind me he’s not to be trusted. He’s angry and self-destructive. He justifies criminal behavior. His brand of justice is often shocking. In A Walk Among The Tombstones, knowing full well what might happen, Scudder leaves a killer in the hands of a very dangerous victim. Scudder seeks justice, but it’s his brand of justice. He punishes the wrongdoers the way he feels he, himself, should be punished. That can get ugly.

And yet, he’s a character with a deep core of decency. He protects the helpless. He’s affected deeply by the innocent. Even when he cannot help himself, he reaches out a hand to help others. His friends know he is a much better person than he believes himself to be. In A Long Line Of Dead Men he is in AA and firmly committed to sobriety. When he meets a man he believes is an alcoholic, Scudder grows invested (too deeply invested as it turns out) with helping the man. It forces Scudder to look at himself, an examination as painful as it is therapeutic.

I haven’t read all the Scudder novels. I intend to. And I want to read them in order. In each novel the mystery he must solve and the people he encounters bring him a little bit more out of the darkness and into the light. Proving, to me at least, that even when we try to deliberately lose ourselves, there is always a way back. It might be hard, it might look impossible, but there is definitely a way. Thirty years ago, I missed seeing the hope in Scudder’s stories. I’m grateful epublishing has given me another chance.

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8 responses

  1. Jaye, I too have been reading Larry’s stuff for a long time (in my case since the 70’s), devouring the books on writing, the Writer’s Digest columns, seeing him at mystery conventions in the 90s, and now buying up the Matt Scudder books I didn’t read as they came out. I used to re-read Telling LIes for Fun and Profit about once a year. AND I have been writing a blog post about him! Weird, huh?

    This is a great and insightful post about my (our!) new favorite detective, and I really enjoyed it. I’ll finish my article later, and I’ll be sure to link to yours when I do.

    1. Oh please do, Bridget. Larry isn’t one to tell people WHAT to write or the A to B to Cs of HOW to write, but his articles on writing always give me plenty to think about and new ways to look at writing problems. Plus, I love reading his fiction.

  2. Nice review of this series! Scudder sounds like a brilliant character.

    1. Oh he is, Marie.

  3. Hi Jaye,
    The first Lawrence Block novel I fread was The Thief Who Couldn’t Sleep. I then bought and read A Walk Amongst the Tombstones, a fairly late entry in the Scudder series, (especially back then, in the 90s, it might even have been one of the most recent). But anyway, I was hooked. I’ve read all the Scudder books, apart from the last one, which I will get around to soon. Scudder is one of my all time favourite series characters. No, he is my favourite.
    Although I read the books out of order, when I got to the end of Eight Million Ways to Die (and I won’t give away that ending here) I actually cried. I had become emotionally involved in Matt Scudder’s personal journey, his story arc through the series. For me, Lawrence Block is one of the all time great crime writers, but his books are about so much more than just crime.
    I’ll probably write my own piece on Matthew Scudder one day. He’s a fascinating character.

    1. Since he’s begun self-publishing his back list, I’ve been finding all the books I never knew he wrote. The Chip Harrison series, and those he wrote as Jill Emerson and Paul Kavenaugh. Characters are what Block does best. Even though Keller and Bernie charm and entertain me, it’s Scudder who truly fascinates me. I’m looking forward to reading the series in order. By then maybe the new Keller will be out.

  4. Matthew Scudder is one of my favorite fictional characters. He survives. He has a backbone. He does the right thing, usually. Reminds me of Leroy Jethro Gibbs. Or maybe that’s why I’m so drawn to the character of Gibbs, he reminds me of Matthew Scudder.

    1. You know, I had not made that connection before, but there are some similarities. I wonder if the creators of NCIS are Block fans.

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