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Lawrence Block: One Case at a Time

Sober crime writer Lawrence Block's greatest creation may be Matthew Scudder, a PI who trades booze for AA meetings; Liam Neeson is shooting the role for a movie. Block tells The Fix about his life and work.

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By Samuel Reaves Slaton

04/25/13

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Lawrence Block has spun tales of murder, burglary, hard drinking and good-old-fashioned detective work across the pages of more than 60 books in his long career. His most enduring creations include the gentleman thief Bernie Rhodenbarr, and the drunk—at least initially—private investigator Matthew Scudder.

Unlike most crime-novel protagonists, Scudder doesn’t remain the same in tale after tale. Rather, Block’s most beloved and complex character has transformed since his debut in 1976’s The Sins of the FatherScudder arrives on the scene as an alcoholic former NYPD detective who’s haunted by having accidentally killed a young girl in a drunken shoot-out. Now an unlicensed gumshoe working perilously close to the edge of the law, he scours the dreary streets of New York City, solving crimes—and curling up with a whiskey in a corner booth at Armstrong’s, a Hell's Kitchen watering hole.

But a few books later, in 1981’s A Stab in the Dark, it dawns on the drunk private dick that there might be something wrong with his relationship to liquor. In the following year’s Eight Million Ways to Die (which in 1986 was made into what is widely acknowledged to be a terrible movie starring Jeff Bridges), Scudder finally puts the plug in the jug, starts going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and—to his own surprise—keeps coming back.

Block himself has 35 years off the sauce, but insists his story bears little resemblance to sober detective Matt Scudder’s.

A decade later, in 1992’s A Walk Among the Tombstones, we find Scudder more settled in sobriety—although he keeps getting tangled up with users, boozers, killers and prostitutes. He knows that despite years without a drop, he still isn’t immune to the siren song of a stiff drink. Like Scudder says of a fellow AA member: “He only had a day, but in a sense that’s all you’ve ever got.”

Block himself has 35 years off the sauce, but insists that his own story bears little resemblance to Scudder’s. The Fix caught up with him in New York’s West Village to talk about crime fiction, AA and writing a sober character.

Why did you decide to have Matthew Scudder get sober?

It was a gradual evolution. When I first started writing about him in the mid-70s, I assumed he would stay the same forever, as fictional private detectives did at the time. They rarely aged at all or changed at all. I assumed that however long I went on writing about Matthew Scudder—and I didn’t know how long that would be—that he would stay essentially unchanged and be in the corner table at Armstrong’s. That’s been true of most crime fiction protagonists. But what happened was, I wrote three books right away, one after the other, The Sins of the Fathers, In the Midst of Death and Time to Murder and Create, and they were duly published and didn’t do very much—and then I assumed that that was the end of that.

But I continued to find the character interesting, so I wrote two magazine novelettes that were published in Alfred Hitchcock’s mystery magazine. And then I decided to write another novel and in the course of writing it, I discovered that I had conceived a character at a level of realism where it just didn’t seem appropriate to me for him not to age and not to be affected in one book by what he’d undergone in another. In other words, not to evolve and change.

In the course of that fourth book, A Stab in the Dark, [Scudder] becomes reluctantly aware that there’s something problematic with his relationship with alcohol. Then in the book that followed, it seemed inevitable that that book specifically address that issue.

Eight Million Ways to Die is really about three things. It’s about the peril of life in New York—and perhaps everywhere—and it’s about the particular case the detective is engaged in, and it’s also about Scudder’s alcoholism and his eventually coming to terms with it. When I finished it, I thought that I’d probably written myself out of a job, because while each of the five books I’d written were discreet novels, in a sense you could see them all as one overall novel that had resolved itself with Scudder getting sober. 

You were going to end the series there, correct?

It wasn’t my intention, but I thought his raison had lost its d'être, as it were. And it took a while before I found out that I was misinformed. So it’s gone on and on.

Was this around the same time that you got sober?

No, I was sober about five years before Eight Million Ways to Die. There aren’t many parallels between Scudder’s life and mine as far as Scudder’s drinking and mine goes, or as Scudder’s self and mine go. There must be some bits of correspondence, but it’s not an alter-ego, by any means.

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