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.
You need to forgive me if I’ve been gushing a lot about Lawrence Block lately. He published the majority of his back list last year as e-books and he keeps holding sales. Of course every time he holds a sale, I have to run over to Amazon and start 1-clicking titles for my Kindle. I read a lot of Block’s work back in the day, so this is like being reconnected with an old friend.
One series I had never read before is the Chip Harrison series. Block first published these under a pseudonym, and his publishers kept changing the titles, so I never discovered Block was the author. Apparently, No Score, the first Chip Harrison novel, came about when Block was still working for a soft-porn mill. He realized there was something special about this book, that it was good enough to qualify as a “real book.” Here is what Block has to say in Afterthoughts:
No Score is the first of four novels featuring Chip Harrison, and they all bore the lead character’s byline when they first appeared as Fawcett paperbacks. The working title of No Score was The Lecher in the Rye, which sums it up well enough; it’s a picaresque account of a young man’s desperate attempt to become sexually experienced.
Fawcett did very well with the book, and a couple of years later I wrote a sequel. And, because I liked the voice, I wanted to write a third book, but how many times could one lad lose his virginity? So in the third book I put him to work for a private detective, and books three and four are mysteries that could be called Nero Wolfe pastiches.
The funny thing is, I’ve never been a huge fan of coming-of-age stories. Especially those involving young men getting their horndog on. Chip charmed me, though. He’s a mixture of tough and tender, decency and desire, that makes him an interesting narrator. Maybe it’s my age. I doubt I would have liked Chip when I was a teenager or even into my 20s or 30s. “Stupid boy. What a stupid, selfish boy,” would have been running through my head as I read. Back then, I wouldn’t have understood him. I would have fixated on the sexy parts and missed completely the thread about finding one’s self and how easy it is to lose one’s way and the struggle it takes to get back on track. In the second book of the series, Chip Harrison Scores Again, Chip’s antics drove me nuts. I was so angry about some of his decisions. Again, maybe it’s my age, I could understand why he did what he did. Despite his failings, I wished him well. I certainly wanted to read more of his adventures.
I dunno, maybe that’s what For Mature Audiences Only truly means.
Chip comes into his own when he starts working for private investigator, Leo Haig, a genius who believes Nero Wolfe was real. Because Haig wants to be recognized as a great detective, he hires Chip to be his Archie Goodwin. Make Out With Murder and The Topless Tulip Caper are funny, funny books. I’ve never been a huge fan of deductive mysteries, far preferring the gritty stuff with lots of science and police procedure. Readers hoping for the hard stuff in these books will be deeply disappointed. You can’t read this series with those expectations. You read it for Chip.
But this was business. Leo Haig had a case and a client, and his client was performing at the Treasure Chest, and since Leo Haig was no more likely to hie himself off to a topless club than I was to enter a monastery, I, Chip Harrison, was elected to serve as Haig’s eyes, ears, nose and throat.
Which explains why I had just tucked a ten-dollar bill into a very large and callused hand.
‘Ten bucks?’ said the owner of the hand. ‘For ten bucks you could go to a massage parlor and get a fancy hand job.’
‘I’m allergic to hand lotion.’
‘I get this horrible rash.’
Chip is a charmer all right.
These stories can also be read as period pieces, with a voice and flavor that’s very much locked in the 1960s. The themes and characters are timeless, making them as readable and enjoyable now as they were then.
Block says it annoys him when fans beg him to write more stories about their favorite characters. I am very tempted to add my voice to the clamor and beg him to write more Chip stories (and Block wouldn’t have that problem if he didn’t write such wonderful characters in the first place, so it’s his own damned fault). I’ll behave, though, and savor what is now my favorite non-series.
Chip Harrison novels (in order):
I read the first book in Jeff Strand’s Andrew Mayhem series this weekend. Laugh, cringe, laugh, cringe, laugh some more, cringe some more. In other words, lots of fun. As soon as I finished, I wanted more, so I popped over to Amazon to buy #2 and #3 in the series. And as soon as Download Complete appeared on my Kindle, I’m like, What is the hell is wrong with you? Just how many ebooks do you need in the queue? Have you no self-control whatsoever?
So then, this morning I got an email from Lawrence Block informing me that all his Open Road ebooks are on sale for today only. One day? Oh crap. So of course I had to pop right over to Amazon. Three minutes later, seven titles are off my wish list and loaded on my Kindle.
I am such a slut.
But wait just a minute. For less than the cost of dinner and a movie, I have nine new books to read. Unlike dinner and a movie which will be over and done with in about four hours and mostly forgotten within a day or two (Unless the movies were either Seven or Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace, both of which I bitched about for weeks and can still get riled up about years later for offending me so greatly with such stupid plots).
Here’s the thing about books, especially genre fiction. The vast majority are temporary entertainment. I can enjoy a few hours lost in somebody else’s world and maybe learn a thing or two along the way. There are a few that stick. A few that matter for whatever reason. I have some books, now tattered and soft, the spines a mass of crinkles and broken paper, because I’ve read them over and over. Those books offer more than pleasure or information. They speak to me. They feel like old friends and we have a connection.
Since I was old enough to speak, I’ve been a story addict. I’ve had lots of interests in my life and a few passions and one or two obsessions (or to hear the old man tell it, “Your OCD acting up again?”) Those come and go. Except for stories. My passion, even my obsession for stories has never died.
Give me a book and a few hours of quiet and I am happy. Tell me a story and I am happy. I’m convinced that if a tornado roared through the neighborhood and flattened my house and swept away all I own, the only possessions I would truly miss would be my books. Even then I wouldn’t be too depressed because even if the books are gone, the stories remain and I can find them again.
They say money can’t buy happiness. Oh yeah? Well $25 just added another page and a half to my Kindle home page. That makes me very happy.
I resisted ebooks for a long time. I’ve been using a computer for writing since the 1980s, but that doesn’t mean I like reading on the things. I spend enough hours in front of a lighted screen to turn my eyeballs into quivering jelly. And they expect me to read for pleasure on a computer? Besides, I love printed books. I love everything about them from the way they look to the way they smell. Reduce a book to bits and bytes? No way.
But then I got interested in indie publishing and I had to see what the fuss was about. So I bought a Kindle. I will not say it was love at first sight. It wasn’t. It’s not the same thing as reading a printed book. I had to learn how to maneuver it to use it properly (and at my age, there is a measure of resentment anytime I have to learn to do something I’ve been doing just fine for decades). I did get used to it. I know I’m entrenched now because just last week I was reading a rather weighty tome while lying in bed and my hand cramped because of the awkward way I had to hold the book. I thought, “Shees, this wouldn’t have happened with my Kindle.” I’ve also discovered that the Kindle is much better for reading while I cook (Cooking bores me, so while things are simmering or steaming or whatever else that involves just standing around watching pots, I read a book. The Kindle, bless its sturdy plastic casing, takes splashes, spatters, greasy fingers and cake batter in stride. Additional bonus, my cats don’t chew on the Kindle and while they do like to lie on it, they’ve yet to figure out how to do it harm.)
The very best thing I’ve discovered, thanks to my Kindle, is the resurgence of short stories. I’ve always loved short stories. It seemed like every magazine I read as a kid had at least one piece of fiction in every issue. There were zillions of monthly and bi-monthly magazines devoted to genre fiction. The very best writers, the mega-writers, wrote short stories for the top magazines. Writers could make nice livings just writing short stories. That changed. Magazines realized they could make more money with advertisements than they could with fiction. Genre digest after digest folded or merged and eventually became sad little shadows of their former selves. Rates for writers dropped. Publishers decided novels were the money-makers and yeah, some writers were able to publish collections, but usually only after they’d become bestsellers with novels. Short stories faced the fate of poetry. Something only artists did, in their spare time, when they weren’t working a “real” job and nobody was expected to make a living at it. If a genre writer was bursting with short stories to tell, his options for publication were limited. He could write novels and hope his publisher took him seriously enough to invest in a collection. He could hope to be invited to contribute to an anthology. While short stories are still being written and published, they aren’t the ubiquitous purveyors of ideas they once were.
From a writer’s perspective, short stories are pure delight. Other than the requirement that they be, you know, short, there are no hard and fast rules. Short stories can be tightly plotted or dispense with plot altogether. They can be snippets, character studies, an exploration of a single, “What if?” or a slice of life. Short stories are a great way to play with a style or just have fun with language. Short stories are about ideas. Big, small, important, trivial, dark, light and everything in between. Hell, Ernest Hemingway supposedly a short story in only six words:
“For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”
Unfortunately for writers, as the markets dried up, writing short stories fell into almost hobby status. Forget finding a market that paid good money, try finding one that paid at all.
Then came the rise of indie publishing and ebooks. Writers have discovered a whole new market by publishing short stories direct to readers. Writer after writer is indie publishing collections and stand-alones, all for a very low price. Because they can make money at it, they have incentive to keep doing it, which means the variety and selection will continue to improve and everybody is happy.
This reader thanks them and Kindle and Amazon and every other outlet that makes it possible for me to find short stories. In the few months I’ve had my Kindle, I’ve purchased a ton of singles and collections. A few of the stories were freebies. Gifts by writers to their readers. I haven’t paid more than five bucks for any of them (and no, I don’t need to hear from you jokers asking how many novels that has led me to purchase, so how much money am I actually saving, hmn? Just shut it.)
The .99 cent short story is pure heaven. Because the cost is so low, I’m comfortable trying out new-to-me writers. I can explore genres that have been neglected by publishers. I no longer have to buy a hardcover at twenty bucks for an anthology in which I’ll probably only find one story worth reading. I really like that a lot of my favorite novelists are taking advantage of ebooks to put out short stories.
Here are a few I’ve really enjoyed:
Weird Fantasy: Irregular Creatures, collection by Chuck Wendig.
Horror: Blood is Red, collection by Scott Sigler
Horror: Specimen 313, by Jeff Strand (FREE!)
Zombies!: The Undead: Zombie Anthology, by David Wellington and many more.
Psycho Horror: Head Cases, anthology by Scott Nicholson and many more.
Horror: Pickers and Pickled Punks, collection by Marina Bridges (I’m biased here since I edited this collection, but they are really good stories or I wouldn’t have edited them)
Literary: House of Skin, collection by Kiana Davenport
Mystery: The Burglar Who Dropped in On Elvis, by Lawrence Block
Women’s: Is It Spicy?, by Julia Barrett
Mystery: The Night and The Music, collection by Lawrence Block
Not every short story or collection I’ve found has been a winner. But I have unearthed enough real treasures to turn me into a short story fiend all over again. Thank you, Kindle.