A book about the mystery of a dead hooker becomes a book about Matt Scudder taking one day at a time, trying to save himself from alcohol. The prose was dry and matter-of-fact; the words of a police report detailing his movements and contacts. And yet the way they were arranged, their anti-drama sensibility, packed an emotional punch. Definitely my favorite Scudder so far.
The synopsis: Scudder gets a visit from a beautiful dairy-maid hooker who wants his help leaving her john. A little unusual to modern sensibilities perhaps, but Scudder explains that police and prostitutes frequently have ‘special’ relationships, the police acting a little like lobbyists working on behalf of their clients at the big house. He agrees, mostly because he’s in need of money. After searching a number of likely pimp-hangouts, a contact arranges meeting with Chance, her pimp, at a boxing match. It gives Scudder a chance to impress Chance with his eye and ability to spot a deal. Meeting over, he returns to the girl and tells her she’s free (these are usually ‘girls’ in Scudder’s world). To no one’s surprise, she turns up dead shortly after their last meeting. Chance tracks Scudder down and convinces him to take the case, for reasons that are partially unclear to both of them, but have a lot to do with staying dry for Scudder. Back from a short bender and even shorter hospital stay, he’s trying hard to stay busy and AA doesn’t seem to be enough.
Character development shines in this book, and even the stereotypical hookers in Chance’s stable have their own unique spin on their activities. The poet was a standout, but what really impressed me was how Block was able to make Scudder’s struggle with alcohol consistently moving. I don’t think I ever felt pity or impatience with his struggle; rather it was compassion for his courage, even when he wasn’t able to quite articulate what and why he was doing. A scene in Harlem with a hopped-up mugger packs a wallop. In a book with an alcoholic main character, it’s a writing cinch to go for the emotional crisis around a bottle, but instead Block springs it when Scudder is dry, cornered in an alley.
Small touches of humor mitigate the bleak, and the potential depressingness of the struggle with alcohol. For instance, Scudder pays his source Danny Boy to point out Chance at the boxing ring: “If it’s any consolation, I’d want at least a hundred dollars to attend a hockey game.” Ah, Danny Boy.
I enjoyed the writing even more this book. There’s the occasional sentence or three when Block is able to so perfectly capture an image, I feel like I’m in the scene: “When I woke up the sun was shining. By the time I showered and shaved and hit the street it was gone, tucked away behind a bank of clouds. It came and went all day, as if whoever was in charge didn’t want to commit himself.”
The depth of humanity shown in the dry description of Scudder’s meetings is consistently moving, whether it is the inanities relayed and Scudder’s internal commentary, or the larger issues people are able to touch on. The way he conveys struggle in these tiny testaments without becoming maudlin or self-pitying is impressive.
Words of wisdom from Mary’s qualifying: “You know, it was a revelation to me to learn that I don’t have to be comfortable. Nowhere is it written that I must be comfortable. I always thought if I felt nervous or anxious or unhappy I had to do something about it. But I learned that’s not true. Bad feelings won’t kill me. Alcohol will kill me, but my feelings won’t.”
Interspersed though the book is the larger theme of the brutality and callousness of the big city. Somewhat unfortunately, he finds a kindred spirit in the cop Durkin, and their trading tales was just about enough to drive me to drink as well. Eight million stories in the big city, all right–and eight million ways to die. It says something for the quality of the writing that despite these weighty issues that the books itself is not depressing to read. Had you told me I’d me moved and impressed about a ex-drunk investigating some dead hookers, I would have raised a skeptical eyebrow. Glad I was wrong.
The weak spot was perhaps the ending. I didn’t feel like Scudder had enough steps to make the final intuitive conclusion, and victim’s actions become even more unclear. Nonetheless, a great journey getting there.