OUT ON THE CUTTING EDGE by Lawrence Block

Number 7 in the Matt Scudder mystery series, this one written in 1989.  Yep, we are still in the era where he makes phone calls from pay phones and lives in a residential hotel for cheap, and actually has a real honest-to-goodness phone in his room. I have decided he is a very Zen kind of person.  He earns just enough to live on and sporadically support his kids, he doesn’t go looking for cases, they all just come to him, his possessions in his hotel room are minimal, he has no car, and he tries to do good.  What more can we ask of life?  Well, we can ask more, we all do, don’t we, but perhaps we shouldn’t, since studies show that happiness is not in possessing things, but in possessing interests and being interesting, and being interested in something.

In this volume, Scudder has been sober for three years, and a Subaru dealer from Indiana has hired him to find his missing daughter,  would-be actress Paula Hoeldtke.  She seems to have moved out of her rooming house room, leaving behind only the sheets and the telephone answering machine.  Her parents haven’t heard from her in several months and can’t contact her, so the dad comes to the city, where he is directed to Matt Scudder to kind of nose around and see what he can come up with.

Meanwhile, a fellow AA member whom he met at one of the meetings has asked Scudder to hear his confessions of his failings, which is Step 5 of the AA program.  Scudder agrees, and when he doesn’t hear from him for a while, looks for him, and finds him dead in his room, asphyxiated by a rope tied to his bed frame.  Looks like an auto-eroticism act gone wrong.

In the course of his investigations he acquires a dangerous new lady (she drinks) and a dangerous new friend (they call him “The Butcher Boy,”, both of whom impact his life in different ways.

As reviewer Bill Kerwin writes, this is a typical Matt Scudder mystery: slow as molasses, slim on plot, very grim—and totally absorbing.  Yep.  I do like this series, because although the subjects are often very heavy, it is easy reading.    This one teaches us about Paris Green.  It is the name of a restaurant the protagonists patronize.

“It gets the feel of the place across.  The French atmosphere, and all the plants hanging from the ceiling.”

“Don’t you know what Paris green is?”

“Evidently not.”

“It’s a poison,” she said.  “It’s an arsenic compound.  Arsenic and copper, if I remember right, and that would account for the color.  It used to get a lot of use as an insecticide.  You would spray it on plants to kill chewing insects. They absorbed it and died.  Paris green was also used as a coloring agent.  To color things green.  They used it primarily in wallpaper, and consequently a lot of people have died over the year, most of them children with a bent for oral experimentation.”

How apt for a murder mystery book.  Spoiler:  it has nothing to do with the deaths in this book.  It is just an interesting side note.

The title of the book comes from a conversation Scudder has with a playwrite, who is discussing an ill friend who is too ill to revise his play.  (Remember, this is the 80s.)  The playwrite says to Scudder

“Everyone’s dying.  Have you noticed? …. Do you know what I think?”

“What?”

“The earth has AIDS.  We’re all whirling merrily through the void on a dying planet, and gay people are just doing their usual number, being shamelessly trendy as always.  Right out in front on the cutting edge of death.”

 

OK, now I am sad.

Enjoy your read, and fret not, for there are many more to come in the series.

 

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WHEN THE SACRED GINMILL CLOSES by Lawrence Block

This is the sixth novel in the Matthew Scudder series of detective fiction.  Who likes the sixth of anything in a series, right?  Yeah, usually by the sixth volume, it is getting stale and repetitive and we Gentle Readers are starting to get the idea that the author is in it just to scrape off the money more better deserved in the first several books.

Yeah, well, you would be wrong.  Another really fine offering, and told by our protagonist quasi-P.I. Matt Scudder, ten years after he quit drinking.  Some lovely reminiscences of his old neighborhood, of places known and loved and gone now, replaced by other, possibly lesser, establishments.  Although he still lives in that hotel, most of life and environment have changed.

The mystery in this book  involves not one particular case, but three: the armed robbery of an after-hours joint, the extortion of a tavern for the return of its cooked books, and the murder of the wife of a patron of one of Matt’s usual haunts. Scudder does eventually connect two cases and solve them, and he sort of solves the other case too, but it seems the point of the book is a meditative farewell to drink: to its taste, to its effects on the drinker, to the world where it is served and the colorful people found there, but, most of all, to the bond between drinker and world, a bond which our determinedly sober protagonist may never experience again.

I love the titles to Block’s books, but this one was especially good.  Matt doesn’t want to go back to his lonely hotel room after the bar shuts down for the night, and a friend/barkeeper says to him, “You’re a guy, a human being.  Just another poor son of a bitch who doesn’t want to be alone when the sacred ginmill closes.”  The barman explains that is from the Dave Van Ronk song, “Last Call”.

And so we’ve had another night
Of poetry and poses
And each man knows he’ll be alone
When the sacred ginmill closes

And so we’ll drink the final glass
Each to his joy and sorrow
And hope the numbing drink will last
Til opening tomorrow

And when we stumble back again
Like paralytic dancers
Each knows the question he must ask
And each man knows the answer

And so we’ll drink the final drink
That cuts the brain in sections
Where answers do not signify
And there aren’t any questions

I broke my heart the other day
It will mend again tomorrow
If I’d been drunk when I was born
I’d be ignorant of sorrow

And so we’ll drink the final toast
That never can be spoken:
Here’s to the heart that is wise enough
To know when it’s better off broken.

The lyrics have a kind of T. S. Eliot feel, don’t they.

DECEPTIVE CADENCE by Kathryn guare

This is the first of The Virtuosic Spy series, and features, of all things, a reluctant Irish violin player who is sucked into spying for the M6, which is the British spy  counterpart of the US CIA organization.

Our grudging protagonist is from a farm family in Ireland.  He has become a successful violinist playing with the Dublin Symphony Orchestra, and loves his life.  He has an older brother, who loved the farm.  But he somehow got himself into a financial mess by applying for some government grant and squandering it.  He then disappears completely.  Our boy, Connor, is forced to return to the farm and his ailing mother, to work the farm and pay off the debt, thereby giving up the career he loved.

He is approached by a dapper fellow who tells him that he is with M6 and wants to recruit Connor to go to India to find his brother, whom they are sure is a kingpin in a money laundering activity there, find him and turn him over to the government.

Well, the whole thing turns into a spy vs. spy thing, with lots of various government thumbs in a lots of various legal and illegal pies.  A great spy thriller, with lots of twists and turns.  And you will love that he uses an obscure classical piece of music as an almost unbreakable password.  Because who would think of that, right?

Really well written, and guess what ….. by a woman, no less!  Who says women can’t write international spy thrillers.

So I bet you are wondering about the title, Deceptive Cadence, aren’t you.  Sure you were.  It comes from the  musical term for a chord progression where the dominant chord is followed by a chord other than the tonic chord  — usually the sixth chord or superdominant chord or submediant chord (V-VI), but sometimes something else.  In other words, for us music-theory-challenged folks, it is not followed by what our ear is expecting …. a resolution to the chord progression…. but by something unexpected, which does not resolve the progression, but sets it off in new directions.

You can see how much I love you because I dug this out for you so that you didn’t have to do it yourselves.   

A STAB IN THE DARK by Lawrence Block

Number 3 in the Matt Scudder slightly noir mid century detective series.  Look at that, I got it all in one sentence.  In this mystery, Louis Pinell, the recently apprehended Icepick Prowler, freely admits to having slain seven young women nine years ago — but he swears it was a copycat who killed Barbara Ettinger.    Matthew Scudder believes him. But the trail to Ettinger’s true murderer is twisted, dark and dangerous…and even colder than the almost decade-old corpse the p.i. is determined to avenge.

That was the official less-than-helpful plot description.  The blurb writer must be getting bored.

Mz Ettinger was stabbed by a sharp object, looked like probably an ice pick, ten years ago.   A criminal confesses to the killing of several other unsolved ice-pick murders, and since Ettinger’s murder looks the same, don’t investigate thoroughly, assuming it is the work of the confessing criminal, even though he swears! he didn’t kill her, that it was not his work.   Ten years later,  the murdered woman’s  father, a well-heeled  lawyer approaches our boy Scudder and asks him to look into the old case.

Scudder manages to scratch up some leads, all the while continuing to battle his worsening alcoholism.  Did you guess that in fact the woman was NOT murdered by that criminal guy?  You would be right.  But I am not telling you who did the stabbing.  I am withholding out of spite, because I did not figure it out.  Yeah, I have a mean streak.

 

Do people still use these?

TIME TO MURDER AND CREATE by Lawrence Block

This is the second in the Matthew Scudder series.  I got into this series after having read Eight Million Ways to Die,  and decided a mid-century noir-ish detective series was just the ticket for those cozy times when I read in bed before turning off the light and counting zzzzs.

The official plot description:  Small-time stoolie, Jake “The Spinner” Jablon, made a lot of new enemies when he switched careers, from informer to blackmailer. And the more “clients, ” he figured, the more money – and more people eager to see him dead. So no one is surprised when the pigeon is found floating in the East River with his skull bashed in. And what’s worse, no one cares – except Matthew Scudder. The ex-cop-turned-private-eye is no conscientious avenging angel. But he’s willing to risk his own life and limb to confront Spinner’s most murderously aggressive marks. A job’s a job after all – and Scudder’s been paid to find a killer – by the victim…in advance.

OK, so Scudder starts his investigation by acting as if he had inherited the business, the blackmailing list of Spinner, and he goes to each of the victims in this pose, seeing what he can find out, who might have been tired enough of the game to want to take out Spinner and save him or herself some heartache, not to mention a lifetime worth of payment money.  Not a bad investigatory angle, and gives us insight into the blackmailees.

As we learned in Sins of the Father, his first in the series, Scudder’s alcoholism is going to be one of the central pillars of the stories.  So we get a tangle of detecting and alcoholism and denial of said alcoholism and little spurts of detecting genius and some interesting characters all mixed up into a colorful ball of a storyline.

So, maybe not as good  as Eight Million Ways to Die, but definitely still pretty good.

IN THE MIDST OF DEATH by Lawrence Block

This is the second in the Matt Scudder noir crime series, set in mid-70s NYC.  Scudder, a poster boy for the hard drinking ex-cop turned PI, is drawn in broad strokes, and we love him for it…. even though we are glad he isn’t our brother-in-law or anything.

For a little more filler about Scudder and the series, take a peek here,  and here.  As my mother used to say, I don’t like to chew my cabbage twice.

In this story, bad cop Jerry Broadfield didn’t make any friends on the force when he volunteered to squeal to an ambitious d.a. about police corruption. Now he’s accused of murdering a call girl.  Scudder doesn’t think Broadfield’s a killer, but the cops aren’t about to help the unlicensed p.i. prove it — and they may do a lot worse than just get in his way.

We learn a lot about police corruption, as if we had no idea, right?  And just how popular a cop can be with his fellow cops if he decides to work with the Special Prosecuting Attorney on police corruption.  Spoiler — it doesn’t go well.

One of the characters that Scudder interviews is a prissy, prim, proper guy, assistant to the D.A., named Lorbeer.  To give you some flavor,

Most people have trouble speaking in sentences.  Lorbeer spoke in paragraphs, structurally complicated paragraphs, and he delivered his little speech with his pale eyes fixed on the tip of my left shoulder.

Good read.  I am certainly enjoying this series, although so far, the fifth, Eight Million Ways to Die, is the best.

 

EPITAPH FOR A DEAD BEAT by David Markson

A companion book, so to speak, of Markson’s Epitaph for a Tramp, which I talked about here.   This was before he was writing his experimental fiction, which I did try to read, but have no patience for literary works which have no discernible story line.  I’m old school.  OK, OK, I’m old.

In this one, Harry Fannin, tough guy private eye, keeps stumbling upon dead bodies, and gets beaten up pretty regularly for it. The setting is Greenwich Village in the 1960s and Markson has fun showing off his familiarity with the authors and celebrities in vogue with the beat generation; he mocks them mercilessly through Harry’s acerbic wit. There is a lot more wordplay in this one than in Tramp. Even the space between Dead and Beat in the title is intentional, since most of the victims were beatniks, not deadbeats.  Want a taste of some of the writing?  Of course you do.

Most of the furnishings have been out of style since Lucky Strikes were green.

Lolita, a sad story about a twelve-year-old girl who couldn’t find anyone her own age to play with.

The building wasn’t quite yet a tenement, although they were already getting interesting effects from the lobby.  It was part tile, part chewing gum.

He had a face which had already seen everything twice, and had been bored the first time.

See what I mean?  A really fun read, despite the dead bodies.   Actually, I felt the plot only existed as a vehicle for Markson’s word play.