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.
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 Father. Scudder 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.
In Eight Million Ways to Die, Scudder is very concerned with the mechanics of being sober. On every single page, he’s fretting about the logistics: Don’t touch the drink. Walk past the bar. Go to a meeting. Drink lots of coffee. It’s a very physical grappling with sobriety. Was it difficult to recreate those early days of being sober?
I wasn’t recreating my early days. His experience in sobriety was very different from mine.
So how did you create that for him?
Imagination. The same way I do everything, really.
Did you draw at all from the experiences of others?
Probably, but not directly.
AA recommends staying sober “one day at a time,” one step at a time. Do you approach writing in a similar fashion?
I may know more or less about where it’s going depending on the particular book, but I don’t outline, I don’t really know that much about what’s going to happen. It’s a process not that different from the moron who found the lost horse when nobody else could. And they asked him how on earth did you manage that? And he said, “Well, I just thought to myself, ‘If I were a horse, where would I go?’” And that’s how I write, really. “If I were this character, what would I do next?”
"Once I stopped drinking, I really didn’t go through any booze-fighting. That doesn’t mean it was easy, but it was easier [for me than it was for Scudder]."
A Walk Among Tombstones is currently being made into a movie, with Liam Neeson playing Matt Scudder, and Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey playing a heroin dealer. Are you involved in the filmmaking process?
No, but I’m delighted it’s being done and I’m taking an interest in that I’ve been to the set a couple of times. And I’m friendly with the writer/director [Scott Frank, Get Shorty]. But I don’t really have a role to play. There was some concern early on as to whether or not they’d be able get permission to shoot in Greenwood Cemetery, because it’s a night shoot and it would be closed. But if they didn’t shoot the scene in the cemetery, the title wouldn’t make a hell of a lot of sense.
Are they retaining the storyline involving Scudder’s sobriety?
There will be several scenes at [AA] meetings.
In writing Scudder’s story, did you set out hoping to say something about AA or sobriety?
I don’t really have an agenda when I write. I’m not thinking about what effect my books will have, because I don’t believe all that many books have any particular effect. They are what they are. I’m really only interested in the story. Every now and then I get mail from someone who says that Scudder’s sterling example helped them get in the [AA] program, thank you, etc. And I generally reply that that’s always nice to hear. I figure it’s a delicate balance between the number of people that I’ve led to sobriety and the number I’ve driven to drink. If it evens out, then I’m fine with it.
Did getting sober affect your writing?
I’m sure it did, but it’s hard for me to know how to answer that. I have to believe it improved it. It made it difficult for the first year or two. Everything was difficult in the first year. I don’t know really how to answer that; I don’t know how it changed it. I was always very productive. I don’t even know.
Did writing about someone else’s struggle to get sober make it more difficult for you to stay sober?
No, not at all. As I said, Scudder’s path was quite different from mine. Once I stopped drinking, I really didn’t go through any booze-fighting. That doesn’t mean it was easy, necessarily, but it was easier [for me than it was for Scudder].
Could you talk about your own path to sobriety?
I’d rather not. I’m not absolutely certain how applicable I feel the letter of the 11th Tradition [maintaining anonymity at a public level] is, but I prefer to do that.
Do writers face any particular challenges in getting and staying sober?
I think writers certainly think so. But one thing I’ve discovered over time is that every profession thinks that. I’ve heard people say, “Well, y’know, I was a printer, and printers all drink.” Or, “I was a fireman, and firemen all drink.” So there’s always a reason. “I was a nun, and of course...” [Laughs.]
I heard a woman in a meeting one time say, “My name is Helen, and I’m an alcoholic, and I also happen to be a nun. And a lot of people both in my religious order and in my family have given me a lot of grief about my sobriety and I have had to learn, for the sake of my sobriety and for my own inner peace of mind, to tell those people to go fuck themselves.” It was one of the finest moments of any meeting.
Samuel Reaves Slaton is a Reviews Editor at Publishers Weekly and a poet.