Thursday, April 28, 2011

Matthew Scudder in Middle Age

I've long believed that Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder series is the best PI series ever written. Some of the books individually stand with any of the classics produced by writers like Raymond Chandler et al., but Block has produced far more books in this series (sixteen and soon to be seventeen) than any of the other "Masters" of the genre. The books are consistently very good if not great, and in addition to writing a number of inventive and absorbing plots, Block has created a cast of memorable, fully-drawn characters in addition to Scudder, the main protagonist. He has also allowed them all to age and become more complex through the years so that reading one of these books is like returning to visit with a lot of old and very interesting friends. If that weren't enough, Block has also built a lushly-drawn set--Scudder's New York City--in which these stories take place.

Even the Wicked is the thirteenth book in the series. Scudder is in his middle fifties, now happily married and domesticated. He's a much more mellow character than he was in the early years, and this particular book is also a bit tamer than some of the earlier entries. The violence is not as gruesome and doesn't seem as threatening; the sex is not as hot and bothered, and Scudder doesn't have to get very violent with anyone.

Which is not to say that this isn't a very enjoyable read. Scudder is forced to deal with a series of complicated crimes, perpetrated by at least three separate characters. In the main case, a vigilante, inspired by a newspaper columnist, is ridding NYC of despicable characters that the legal system is unable to touch for one reason or another. After claiming three scumbag victims, he announced that his next target will be a criminal defense attorney who has won a number of high profile cases. The attorney hires Scudder to try to find the killer, even though the police are working night and day to find him as well.

Scudder arranges protection for the attorney and gets on the job. At the same time a friend asks Matt to look into the shooting death of an AIDS victim who was killed in a city park. The police are not pursuing the case very aggressively and are apparently ready to write it off as a random act of violence in the big city. Matt, of course, will not dismiss it so easily.

Scudder works the two investigations in and around evenings with his wife, Elaine, and again engages the services of TJ, the street kid who first appeared as Scudder's semi-sidekick a few books earlier. It's fun to watch him work and it's also fun to listen to the banter among the characters. And inevitably, Matt's dogged persistence will pay dividends in the end.

This book certainly doesn't have the hard edge of some of the earlier Scudder novels, but you wouldn't expect a fifty-five-year-old PI to be wrapped as tightly and to act as fiercely as the young, alcoholic ex-cop that we first met in The Sins of the Fathers. After a very long wait, we are about to finally get a new Matthew Scudder novel, A Drop of the Hard Stuff, which is set earlier in Scudder's career. I would expect this book to resemble much more closely in tone some of the best books in the series, and I, for one, can hardly wait.

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