What I’m Reading: Lawrence Block – The Devil Knows You’re Dead

A large part of the appeal of Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder series has always (or at least from about the third novel onwards) been to follow the fate of its protagonist, his trying to survive without a regular job, his trying to come to terms with his past as a police officer, and chiefly his struggle with (and quite often succumbing to) his alcoholism.

But this is how it goes – you creat a recurring protagonist for your novels, give him a backstory, and, as no man is an island, some friends, some acquaintances and maybe an enemy or two. Then, likely a few novels into your series now,  you have to show how your hero copes with history, how his past influences his present, maybe show he overcomes it. You have to keep track of what his friends and acquaintances are doing, maybe have an old enemy return. And as your hero keeps working on cases, there are new friends, new acquaintances, new enemies, all of which have to kept track of, too, while your hero continues to develop, maybe enters a relationship, wonders whether it might be something serious. You have a fairly long series now, ten, maybe eleven volumes, and as you write your most recent one you suddenly notice how your protagonist’s ongoing private life has so encroached on what was supposed to be the plot of your novel that it is taking up most of the space and the attention.

This is what I think happened to the Matt Scudder series in its eleventh volume, The Devil Knows You’re Dead – in all ten novels before this one, the crime plot was always placed firmly centre stage, with Scudder’s private life in the background, enhancing the main plot with depth and emotional resonance. In contrast, The Devil Knows You’re Dead is first and foremost about Matthew Scudder the man and his personal history, and as his job is working as an unlicenced private detective, there is some crime here, but it’s only taking place in the periphery – while you usually have a detective because a crime has been comitted, here you have a crime because the book happens to be about an detective.

Such a reversal of emphasis might have been a sure recipe for a boring, uninteresting novel – but Scudder is a fascinating character (and readers who have followed him through the series will have quite an emotional investment in him by now) and Block is an excellent writer who manages to pull this off with apparent effortlessness and keeps us interested^, making us care more about how things between Elaine and Scudder will turn out and what he will do about Jan than in who did or did not kill Glenn Holtzmann.

Block’s regard is as unflinching when it is directed on Scudder’s private life as when it is on the more public sphere of crime and punishment – not satisfied with his usual shorcomings – his alcoholism, his befriending a known and ruthless criminal, his dithering in his relationship with Elaine – Scudder in this volume adds infidelity to the list when begins an affair with a crime victim’s widow. Still, the reader (this reader at least) can’t help but like Scudder, for aren’t we all flawed somehow, and we’ve been together with him through so much, one can’t help but hope that he’ll get a grip on himself and do right by Elaine. And of course read the next book in the series, to find out whether he does.


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