Tag Archives: Matthew Scudder

Review: Dead Girl Blues

Cautiously, tentatively. I’d ask one woman out to dinner, take another to the movies. I took pains to appear at ease on such occasions, and to a certain extent I was, but a part of my mind was always busy taking my emotional temperature. Did I like this woman? Did I find her attractive? Was conversation with her difficult or easy? Interesting or tedious? Did I want to see her again?

More to the point, did I want to fuck her? Did I want to kill her first and then fuck her?

Sometimes I asked myself what the hell I thought I was doing. My life in Lima was pleasant enough. I was making decent money, and my prospects were good. I had a growing circle of acquaintances with whom I could contrive to spend as much or as little time as I wanted.

I wouldn’t say that I had any friends. But then I had never had a friend, and how could I be expected to make one now?

I’d seen this bit of doggerel in a souvenir shop, burned into a wooden plaque:

A friend is not a fellow who is taken in by sham
A friend is one who knows our faults and doesn’t give a damn

So there you have it. My acquaintances could only be fellows taken in by sham, as I did not dare to let anyone know who I really was. Because they’d certainly give a damn. How could they not?

Lawrence Block.  Was ever a scribe less aptly named?  (At least his first name isn’t Ryder.)  82 years old, still churning out fiction (and nonfiction) at a staggering rate.  Self-publishing quite a bit now (works better when you’re a name), but also gets the odd gig with Hard Case Crime.  Like his buddy Don, he has no concept of retirement.

Back in 2016, I reviewed his novella Resume Speed, which you see up top.  Liked it very much indeed.  I still consider it some of the best work he’s ever done (not that I’ve read all the work he’s done–few could say they had).  A spare penetrating look into one chapter in the life of a drifter. A talented likable man with a troubled past he can’t come to terms with–even the third person narrator seems unsure exactly what happened to make his protagonist move from one small town to another, settling down for a spell, then abruptly pulling up stakes, leaving thriving businesses and broken hearts behind.  We never even learn his original name.

The clues are few and contradictory.  Did he murder someone?  Is someone trying to murder him?  Is he genuinely in trouble, or is that just an excuse to keep moving?  I wouldn’t expect a sequel to clear that up.  Some stories you only ruin by finishing them.

But this is, you might say, a companion piece to the earlier story, which in turn hearks back to work like the Keller series, where the hitman hero yearns to settle down in some small community, never does.  It also bears some points in common with Random Walk, another recent self-published novel of his I tried to read, gave up on.  When I like Block, I like him very much indeed.  When I don’t, he’s got plenty of other readers to keep him company.  This current book I like pretty well, but let’s get the ground rules clear.

I normally do very thorough plot synopses on this blog.  Reviews meant for people who have already read the work in question, which has in the main been available for decades.  But when I’m reviewing a newly published work, I feel a bit more reticence is called for.  I also use a lot less quotes.  I’ll mainly stick to that here, but I can’t explain what I like or dislike about this one without at least half-revealing some plot twists, so bear that in mind.

So to cut to the chase, if you’re reading this review to decide whether this novel is worth the ten bucks it costs to download–it is, and then some.  If you like Block, and if you like stories that get into the minds of killers–for example, a story about a man who without malice aforethought murdered and raped a young woman–in that order–and tells us in some detail how that came to happen, and what happened afterwards.  Not everything that happened, because this is another story you might ruin by finishing.

This is a story about a drifter with an unequivocally murderous past, who finally stops drifting, puts down permanent roots, meets a woman, starts a family–and then has to learn to deal with the consequences of those choices.  He is, in fact, a sympathetic character.  He is the highly rational first-person narrator of his own story, and we see everything through his eyes, are forced to understand his point of view, have to make up our own minds how we feel about it.

And you might argue this forms a genre of its own in crime fiction.  “I murdered someone, this is how it felt, this is how I reacted, and [usually] this is how I got caught and punished.”  The earliest classic example might be Poe’s The Telltale Heart, (he published The Black Cat the same year) but even he probably didn’t invent it.  And Poe wrote about killers who were clearly incapable of telling reality from fantasy.  Madmen, not sociopaths.

Skipping over a century ahead, we come to Jim Thompson–who Block wrote critically about in several articles I mentioned here some time back.  Thompson almost specialized in first-person narrators who were killers, and they never get away with it, but neither can we really get away from them, so haunting are their twisted insights.  Even after death, they may still be telling someone (we never know who, or what) of their crimes–the Exit Interview in Hell, I like to call it.

The novel you see up top is perhaps his most notorious effort in this vein.  But not even Lou Ford beats a woman to death and then has sex with her corpse–and his psychopathy is explained by his having been sexually abused by his father’s housekeeper (and mistress) as a child.

The narrator of Block’s novel can’t give us any explanation of what he did–his childhood was almost offensively normal.  Though his parents neglected him a bit, due to his being one of ten children–there were no deep emotional bonds formed, leading to an outwardly affable man who has a hard time feeling anything towards other people, besides idle curiosity, and residual wariness.

He commited that murder, and that posthumous rape, because it seemed like the only thing to do when a random bar hook-up went wrong, and he never stopped thinking about it afterwards, because it felt so unexpectedly right.  He spends a lot of time getting to know the killer inside him, running little thought experiments, trying various scenarios out in his mind, even scoping out potential victims (but never following through), because he knows he was lucky not to get caught the first time, is afraid to push his luck.  He tells us he’s a sociopath, but he’s an exceptionally self-analytical one.  Is this a good thing?  For him, yes.  For the story?  I’m a bit less sure.  But fiction is the ultimate thought experiment, no?

Mr. Block is well aware of his many outstanding debts to past writers in this highly jugular vein–and pays one off by having his protagonist (whose real name we do learn), settle down under the assumed name of John James Thompson.  Methinks he was more impressed than he let on in those critical essays–part of that perhaps came from feeling that the critics had overrated Thompson after his death, while underrating others, himself included.  (But Mr. Block, you can’t very well expect to be posthumously lionized before your posterior is down in the humous, can you now?  First things first.)

It should go without saying that he was also influenced by his lifelong friend, Donald E. Westlake–who rarely wrote first-person narratives about murderers (never about rapists).  Westlake admired Thompson very much, but had reservations about The Killer Inside Me–I think because he felt that even for Thompson, it was going too far.  Making an outlaw hero out of a misogynist monster–who the unfortunate women in his life can’t help but keep crawling back to.  (Westlake perhaps sometimes worried he was doing that with Parker, at least in The Hunter, but of course it was Stark telling the story, not Parker himself–there’s that bit of narrative distance.  Parker would never think of confessing his crimes to anyone, even in Hell’s antechamber, and wolves don’t go to Hell.)

So while there are many models he might have drawn upon, from the work of others, and from his own past efforts, it’s that last book up top that gives us the biggest hint to the puzzle of what he’s attempting here.  He’s trying a variation on The Ax.  The basic narrative form is almost identical, in that ‘Thompson’ is telling us his story in fits and starts, and when he begins, he still doesn’t know where he’s going with it.  (The difference is, we’re told he’s typing this into his computer–and wondering as he does it if he will eventually have to destroy the hard drive to make sure nobody but him ever reads what he’s writing–there’s a bit of Adios Scheherazade here as well, a neglected Westlake masterpiece that Block has made his admiration for known).

But he’s trying to rationalize the process of becoming that Westlake depicted so effectively in that novel.  His family man (whose livelihood is never at serious risk) is going to find a way to keep the killer inside him under wraps, and he’s going to find a way to honestly share who he is with his family, as Burke DeVore never did.  A major part of this story is him deciding what secrets need to be shared with those he somehow has come to love, in order to be kept secret from the world at large.

And (spoiler alert) they not only forgive him, the adoptive son whose actions inadvertently led to a legitimate fear of ‘Thompson’ being brought to justice at last apologizes profusely to him.  And his wife, once he clues her in, goes on wanting to have sex with him in the manner to which they have become accustomed–with her lying limp as a corpse, satisfying his necrophiliac fetish–she prefers it that way.

Yeah.

Reading a recent Matt Scudder short Block self-published recently, I was struck by the way Scudder really didn’t feel like Scudder anymore.  Now I haven’t read most of those novels, just the first few.  I know the character got past his guilt, his alcohol addiction, and I’m happy he and his hooker galpal Elaine eventually became a contented married couple.

But see, my feeling is that Westlake was right to stop writing the oddly similar (and earlier) Mitch Tobin novels after Tobin finally got over his guilt issues, because those issues were what made the books worth reading.  There is no story without them.  Just a franchise, which isn’t the same thing.  Block disagreed, and kept right on turning out Scudders, sometimes as prequels (a form Westlake clearly didn’t care for and neither do I).

While every fictional protagonist is probably, to some extent, a mask his or her creator hides behind, that mask still matters, and a writer is ill advised to ever let it slip too much.  My sense was that in this story, the writer had completely given up on pretending Matt Scudder was anybody other than Lawrence Block.  Even basically the same age as Lawrence Block, leading a very similar Gothamite lifestyle, and enjoying many of the same sexual fantasies as Mr. Block.  (Which I can’t say I ever noted in the earlier books.)

So when the story ended with the pretty young blonde girl Elaine knows from a sort of Twelve Step group for reformed/reforming working girls,  who the aging Scudder just rescued from a creepy stalker, happily volunteers to join him and the missus in a three-way, just to express her gratitude (isn’t she supposed to be reforming?), and they all adjourn to the bedroom–let’s just say I wasn’t shocked.  Or turned on.  I mean, I’m all for people doing whatever they like so long as nobody gets hurt and no horses are frightened, but–ew.

So I’m a square, like Huey Lewis, without the sunglasses.  My hang-ups notwithstanding, it struck me more as wish fulfillment than a legit Scudder story–like everything was just an elaborate build-up to the threesome, which Scudder spends some time dreaming about during the course of the story.  And then his dream comes true.

And since the women are fine with it–well, in a Block story, they always are.  Just like it wasn’t statutory rape for the hero of Block’s much earlier Ronald Rabbit is a Dirty Old Man (whose name, you should know, is Larry) to enjoy frequent coitus with no fewer than five beautiful Catholic school girls under the age of 17 (one of them is 15), because it was all their idea.  (I will not for one moment pretend that didn’t turn me on.  I am, after all, only human.)

In a work of fiction, there is no problem with consent, unless the author puts it in there.  So perhaps it won’t surprise you to learn that at some point in the course of this new novel, Mr. Thompson’s long-ago victim (who gave consent while drunk, then withdrew it, then got murdered and raped) appears to him in a vision and says she forgives him.  To his credit, it never occurs to him to present this as a legal defense if the law ever catches up to him via DNA evidence he left inside her all those years ago.

It’s an effectively written book.  It has some interesting points to make, and it does quietly keep the reader in suspense, because it is, let’s face it, not your typical story told from the perspective of a psychopathic killer.  I appreciate moral ambiguity in fiction, and especially crime fiction.  But this isn’t all that ambiguous.  We’re clearly supposed to say “This is a good guy, he made a mistake, he worked on his issues, he’s got a nice business, a nice family, the girl forgave him from the spirit realm or the fifth dimension or whatever”–and reading it, I have to admit, I didn’t want him to get caught and sent off to the pokey.

Block does a rather superlative job making us fear the machinations of the law, the wheels grinding fine, the obsession with cold cases, unsolved mysteries, and the everpresent threat of DNA evidence, freeing some, imprisoning others.   But like Westlake, he’s also skeptical of how good the cops really are.

He makes a very persuasive argument towards the end.  You see, Thompson really has kept his nose clean all this time, suppressed his murderous impulses–though he was frequently on the edge of giving in to them, and even considered wiping out his family because he couldn’t bear the thought of them ever finding out who he really was.  He wanted to spare them that pain.

But he never gave in to any of these violent impulses.  Never broke any laws.  Never got so much as a speeding ticket.  Never reached out to his birth family, either.  So even though the law knows now it was him, or rather the him that used to be, they have no way of figuring out where or who he is now.  And in an echo from the Parker novels, the simulations of how he’d look in the present day just don’t match up to reality all that well.

Investigators looking into that old case would ultimately conclude that the scumbag who did this must have died years ago.  He would have killed again with the same MO, he would have gotten into trouble with the law, he would have contacted members of his birth family for help, he would have tripped up somehow.  Because they always do.  Do they?  I have no idea.  They found the Green River Killer.  Zodiac might still be out there.  Or not.  Pretty sure Jack the Ripper is gone, though Robert Bloch (no relation to Lawrence) might dissent.

But I’m damn sure none of them turned into decent family men who owned their actions, confided in their loved ones, became armchair philosophers of psychopathy, and had spirit visions of their victims forgiving them–and that’s what happens with Block’s non-serial killer.  Is this a believable conclusion?  You tell me.  It’s an interesting story, I’ll tell you that.

I think the point is, we all have problems, things we’ve done in our past, or wanted to do, that we’re unhappy about, and we should deal with that baggage, be as open about it as possible without scaring everyone away.  You need to know yourself in your entirety, not just the good stuff.  That’s a mora both Jim Thompson and Donald E. Westlake would heartily endorse (I couldn’t say about Poe).

But if Westlake didn’t like The Killer Inside Me (which is a bloody good book) I find it hard to believe he would have liked this one.  He knew his friend’s faults very well, I believe, and didn’t give a damn.  I know I still like Resume Speed very much.   And many other books and stories by Lawrence Block.  I’m not sorry I read this one.  I won’t be reading it again.

Nor will I tell you which idea I have toyed with for a story indirectly showed up in it.  Which worried me a bit.  Great minds…..?

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