When, in my post on the previous entry in Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder series, I wrote that it marked a return to form, I was expecting the remaining novels to be solid and mostly unadventurous, with the series settling into a comfortable groove that it would run along in until it eventually came to an end. In consequence, I was more than just a bit surprised to find out that this late in the series there would still be a novel that holds its place besides works like Eight Million Ways to Die or When the Sacred Gin Mill Closes.
Maybe part of what makes it stand out is that Everybody Dies is not really a Scudder novel – while our protagonist is quite present and is doing his usual investigative rounds, he is only marginally involved in events compared to Mick Ballou, his friend and gangster boss, who stands firm in the center of the story. He has always been one of the most interesting recurring characters in the series (second only to Elaine, in my opinion), as well as the most unlikely one to form a friendship with an ex-alcoholic private detective and former policeman like Scudder. And it stands testimony to Block’s considerable skill as a writer that he has consistently managed to avoid letting him slide into cliché (which is all the more impressive when you consider that Ballou is of Irish descent) – Mick Ballou is not a gangster with a heart of gold and is not redeemed by his Irish sentimentality but is an unapologetic criminal with a very matter-of-fact attitude towards doing what (in his eyes) needs to get done and that with a certain regularity tends to be very much on the violent side of things. Everything considered, he is not a very likable person, and it is again very much to Block’s credit that he never tries to make him appear otherwise, but he is also a very fascinating character and in the end is that which makes Scudder’s friendship with him entirely plausible – one can see and feel (Block makes us see and feel) how someone like Scudder can feel a strong attraction towards someone like Ballou who is in almost all regards his complete opposite, except maybe for a shared respect for things many consider old-fashioned.
So it is very welcome to see Mick Ballou take the spotlight for this installment of the series, when it turns out that someone is out to get him and he hires Scudder to investigate. Scudder is very reluctant about it and only agrees to take a look at what appears a tangential angle for the sake it excluding that possibility – but of course he gets drawn in farther and farther and ends up getting much more involved than he planned, with some disastrous consequences.
This is definitely one of the bleaker volumes in a series that is not exactly uplifting to start with (the blurb on the cover of my edition is not exaggerating when it calls the novel “very, very dark”), but it packs quite an emotional punch and the storytelling is, as always with Lawrence Block, superb – the tension builds slowly but inexorably and the reader’s attention never falters, with the narrative having a relentless grip and never letting go. In the end, it is not so much about who committed the crime but – and this also is a constant in Block’s Scudder novels – about what price everyone – perpetrators as well as victims – will have to pay for it. Overall, this is an outstanding entry in a generally excellent series and made me look forward to the next one.