Saturday, April 10, 2010

Trouble in Paradise: A Review of Ken Mercer's "Slow Fire"

Will Magowan is an ex-cop who left the L.A.P.D. under a cloud and in the wake of an enormous personal tragedy. He’s unemployed, estranged from his wife, and reduced to living in a broken-down Airstream trailer when he receives a letter, offering him a job as the Chief of Police in Haydenville, California. Will is perplexed by the offer, especially since he hadn’t even applied for the job. But he has no other prospects and so accepts the call.

Haydenville is situated in a majestic national forest in the northern part of the state. But on arriving there, Will finds that the once-idyllic town is in the grip of a virtual plague that has plunged the community into nothing short of a death spiral. He also quickly discovers that he has very few allies, other than Thomas, his rookie deputy, who has no formal training whatsoever. Nonetheless, Will decides to stick it out, hoping that by attempting to resolve the town’s problems, he might also find some measure of personal redemption.

Will is only briefly on the job when he’s called to the scene of an apparent accident. A young woman has been found dead near a river, lying next to her overturned kayak. Will is troubled by what he finds, and refuses to agree with the conclusion that the victim died by accident.

Will fairly quickly discovers the source of the town’s difficulties and identifies his prime suspect. But in attempting to address the issue, he’s stymied at every turn. Even the mayor who hired him stubbornly refuses to cooperate and will not give any credence to Will’s well-founded suspicions.

The death of the young kayaker inaugurates a wave of horrific violence, and Magowan finds himself up against some genuinely creepy, malevolent and amoral villains. A lesser man would say the hell with it and leave Haydenville to the fate it probably deserves. But Will Magowan is not a lesser man. Against nearly insurmountable odds and in the face of grave danger to himself and the handful of people who support him, Will soldiers on, determined to redeem both himself and his newly adopted home town.

By naming his fictional town Haydenville, Mercer would appear to be paying an obvious homage to the film, High Noon, which was set in the town of Hadleyville, New Mexico. And Will Magowan’s struggle to save a small town that is threatened by grave danger and inhabited by an ungrateful and unsupportive population is, of course, strongly reminiscent of Marshall Will Kane’s efforts on behalf of his own small town.

The story of the flawed but ultimately virtuous outsider who rides into town and saves the day against overwhelming odds has long been a staple both of westerns and of crime fiction. But Ken Mercer provides a fresh take on the idea and creates strong, believable characters in a beautifully rendered setting. The plot moves swiftly. And even though the villain is identified fairly early on, the suspense builds to a great climax.

Slow Fire was another excellent First Mystery pick by the staff of The Poisoned Pen bookstore ( ), and happily it is the first of a new series. With this book, Ken Mercer is off to a great start.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Lawrence Block/Matthew Scudder: An Appreciation

I first met Matthew Scudder sometime in the latter 1980s when I stumbled across a paperback copy of When the Sacred Ginmill Closes. I was hooked from the opening paragraph and when I finished the book, I set quickly about the task of finding every other Lawrence Block novel I could lay my hands on.

Thankfully, there were a lot of them. Beginning in the middle 1950s, Block has had a very prolific career, producing something in the neighborhood of fifty novels and a hefty collection of short stories. Through the middle 1960s, he wrote a number of stand alone pulp novels with titles like A Diet of Treacle and Grifter’s Game. Happily, some of these earlier books have now been revived and reprinted as part of the Hard Case Crime series and are thus available again for the first time in years.

In 1967, Block created his first series character, Evan Tanner, in The Thief Who Couldn’t Sleep. Three years later, he produced the first of four books featuring Chip Harrison in a series that was obviously a tribute to the work of Rex Stout. And then, in 1976, Block introduced Matthew Scudder in The Sins of the Fathers.

Scudder, a divorced alcoholic ex-cop who had left the force after a tragic accident, is an unlicensed private detective who does “favors for friends” who pay him for his time and efforts. He lives in a tiny hotel room, “the size of a walk-in closet,” in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan, and through the early books in the series, he wrestles with his demons, particularly his alcoholism.

By far the darkest of Block’s series characters, Scudder spends the bulk of his time in saloons, denying—mostly to himself—that he has a drinking problem. When he does take a case, he tithes ten percent of the fee, most of which goes into the poor boxes of Catholic churches where he will often light a candle in memory of someone he’s lost. Matt is not a religious man, and he’s not entirely certain why he feels compelled to do this, but it allows him time to reflect in the quiet solitude of the churches he visits. The Catholics get most of his business simply because their churches are open more often than anyone else’s.

The cases he takes are always interesting and Scudder almost always resolves them, not by making great intuitive leaps, but rather by doing the hard, plodding work of the determined detective. You enjoy watching him do it, but mostly you read these books because of the great cast of characters that Block has assembled in this series, beginning with Scudder himself. As the series progresses, Block introduces a small supporting cast and then makes you care a great deal about each of their lives and their respective fates.

Block allows these people to age in real time so that by the time we see them in the sixteenth book, All The Flowers Are Dying, the survivors have all grown and changed, in some cases dramatically, from the characters that we first met as long as thirty years earlier. Most important, Scudder himself comes to a major transformational moment at the conclusion of the fourth book, Eight Million Ways To Die, and in the wake of that moment becomes a richer, fuller, and even more interesting protagonist.

I’ve read this series from first book to last any number of times now, and my own personal favorite is the eleventh, The Devil Knows You’re Dead. Matt is asked to investigate the murder of a young attorney, Glenn Holtzmann. The case appears to be open and shut: Holtzmann was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and was shot and killed by a mentally unbalanced street person. But the brother of the man the police have arrested asks Scudder to look into the case, and Matt discovers that, while the police have apparently arrested the right man, the victim was a man of many unexplained secrets. Once captured by the case, Scudder will not give it up until he has unraveled all of those secrets.

The mystery itself is fine, but what I love about this book is that it comes at a very important point in Matthew Scudder’s life, probably the most significant since the closing pages of Eight Million Ways To Die. The times are changing, and so are the people that surround Matt. Scudder is personally conflicted in a variety of ways that will resonate deeply with a lot of readers. And the way he reacts to those changes and conflicts is what makes him one of the most intriguing characters ever to inhabit the pages of crime fiction.

The sixteenth book in this series appeared in 2005, and Block has suggested that he may not write another. I hate to think that might be true. I’ve spent scores of hours in the company of these characters and the thought that they might not appear again is enormously sad. I understand that, ultimately, there will have to be a final Matthew Scudder novel; I just don’t want to have to face the prospect for a good long time.

Block would go on to create two additional series characters, Bernie Rhodenbarr who is a bookseller by day and a burglar by night, and Keller, a stamp-collecting hit man who would appear in a series of short stories and in one full-length novel. Bernie and Keller are much lighter and funnier characters, and they are both enjoyable reads. But Matthew Scudder remains Block’s greatest achievement.

Standing firmly in the company of the all-time greats, Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder will endure for as long as people read detective fiction. Every reader has his or her own favorite author and protagonist; these guys will always be mine.