Saturday, June 7, 2008

Book Review: The Sins of the Fathers by Lawrence Block

Three Lawrence Block books in a month. I guess you could call that a block of Blocks. Ahem, moving on.

One of the best things about what I seem to be doing (reading a lot of crime novels in an attempt to determine where my books are going to be placed within the wider pantheon of crime literature) is that there is just so much out there. Some of these writers, like Block, are so big, they transcend the genre. That is, I knew the name "Lawrence Block" before I even picked up the very first Hard Case Crime story ever published, Block's Grifter's Game. Since then, I have learned that Block is most famous for two creations, Bernie Rhodenbarr (AKA "The Bulgar") and the Matt Scudder novels. Being a stickler for reading these series characters from the beginning, I recently found the first books from each of these series. Don't know why but I read Scudder first.

We meet Scudder, where else, in a bar, sitting opposite a client. Scudder is not a licensed PI; instead, he does 'favors' for people. And, in the best tradition of old-school PI novels, Block gets right to the point. A bereaved father wants Scudder to learn about and report on the last days of his daughter's life. Specifically, he blames himself for not reaching out to her and he wants to know if what the papers have printed about her--that she's a prostitute--are true. Scudder agrees and takes the man's money.

The first thing that jarred me about this character--and immediately gave him depth--was that Scudder tithed 10% of his fee. Crime fiction that I am familiar with tends to be somewhat secular. I know there are PI series out there with priests and whatnot; I just haven't read them. And for a PI, down on his luck, divorced, with two boys he seems not to know what to do with, semi-alcoholic, who lives in a hotel, to give up 10% of his hard-earned cash is something remarkable. And he does it more than once. It's one of the neatest aspects of Scudder, that he knows there is a God and that he, Scudder, strayed though he is, is one of the sheep.

On the cover of nearly every copy of a Block book, invariably, there is a quote about Block's prose. I got the one from Martin Cruz Smith who considers Block to be a direct descendant of James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett. I haven't read Cain yet...but he's dead on with the Hammett reference. Block uses nice and tidy prose. There is no fat. My copy of the novel is 186 pages and seventeen chapters. But, considering Chapter 17 is only three pages long, Block tells his entire story in sixteen chapters and 183 pages. My current novel is on chapter 18 and I'm on page 125. Boy, do I envy Block's writing. To cite the last sentence of the Martin Cruz Smith quote, "He's that good."

Again, not knowing anything about Scudder, the second jarring thing he did came after this sentence: "I went back to Armstrong's, but it was the wrong place for the mood I was in." There had not been hardly any violence in the novel up to that point (p. 127) and I honestly didn't see what was coming. It jarred me. In fact, I put a sticky note on that page so I could quickly return to that place in the book. I expected it to be important and it was. Going back to the tithing aspect of his character, I couldn't help but see an angelic--not the good kind--coming out in Scudder's actions.

In my ongoing education in crime literature to date, I have met a lot of one-time characters: Angel Dare, Swede Nelson, Joe Hope, Cay Morgan, Jack Stang. Even Nick and Nora Charles, in literature, are one-time characters. Matt Scudder is the first ongoing character to whom I have been introduced. I want to taste a lot of different writers before I settle down and plow through an entire series. It is going to take a act of will not to buy the second book in the Scudder series tomorrow. He is intriguing. He is deep. He is, to appropriate the above quote and apply it to Scudder, that good.

What I Learned As A Writer: I am a writer and I am reading to become a better writer. I keep a pencil handy when I read so I can mark neat or interesting passages. I actually take notes when there is something important. At one point in this novel, Block does a fascinating thing. Scudder breaks into the apartment where the murder took place. This event happens on page 57 and Block covers it thusly:

"The window wasn't locked. I opened it, let myself in, closed it after me.
An hour later, I went out the window and back up the fire escape."

Scudder then goes and has a sandwich. At the time, accustomed as I am to CSI-type readings of crime scenes (that is, in intricate detail), I was shocked. It was the end of a chapter as well, so, as I turned the page, I expected to have the scene laid out, in detail. Uh-uh. What Scudder did and saw in the apartment is scattered throughout the rest of the book and a detail is divulged only when it is important. The rest of it doesn't matter. Holy cow! It is a brilliant way to keep the reader engaged. We know Scudder had to have found something...but what was it? Brilliant.

And I won't even go into detail about the obvious way those two sentences state what is necessary without any extra detail. We, the Reader, fill in the gaps. Makes me wonder if Cruz Smith should have included Hemingway in that list to which Block belongs? I think so.

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