Monday, July 16, 2007
One Book and beyond: Vol. 2
It may seem odd to qualify any of Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder novels as overlooked or underappreciated, considering the amount of attention he generally gets, but his 1993 novel THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD has never been granted the status I think it deserves. It is, in my mind, the ne plus ultra of the Scudder books and maybe one of the ten best private eye novels ever.
It starts with Scudder investigating a seemingly random street killing - a man shot dead at a payphone - and ultimately turns into a meditation on death, friendship, infidelity and New York itself. As Scudder tries to uncover the motive for the murder, his own personal life is in upheaval. And though his relationship with his ex-hooker girlfriend Elaine is deepening, he finds himself inevitably drawn to the murdered man's young widow. At the same time, an old lover of Scudder's has discovered she's terminally ill and makes a final request of him - get her a gun so that she can end it herself when the pain becomes too much to take.
Storywise, as far as the Scudder novels go, DEVIL is relatively low-key. It has none of the violent intensity of the two books that preceded it - A DANCE AT THE SLAUGHTERHOUSE and A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES - or the intricate plotting of some that followed. And though on the surface the subject matter may seem grim, in the end the book is oddly life-affirming. We're all looking for comfort in the night, Block seems to be saying, and we should take it where we find it, because the whole carnival might just end at any minute, and more than likely before we're ready.
The climax of DEVIL is a quiet one - there's no action, no last-minute danger Scudder has to think or fight his way out of. And the resolution of the mystery is simpler than we ever expected it to be. But at the same time, in its closing pages, the novel attains a sense of almost cathartic release. And along the way Block gives us - as usual - some of the best dialogue anyone's ever written anywhere. This one's a keeper.