In Admiration of…. Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder novels

In a timely addition to the series of occasional blogs about other crime writers, allonymbooks author EJ Knight ponders the crime novels by Lawrence Block from which the imminently released  film A Walk Among The Tombstones is drawn.

I’ve visited New York many, many times over the years and, much as my allonymbooks stablemate Evie Woolmore found Warsaw an inspiration for her novel Rising Up, so my slow wanderings around one of the world’s great cities inspired me in my writing. But unlike Evie, the majority of my visits to New York have not been by plane, car or train. They have been in the pedestrianised byways of my imagination, walking slowly, patiently, doggedly in the long shadow cast by Matt Scudder. For while the upcoming adaptation of Lawrence Block’s tenth Scudder novel is being widely praised already for Liam Neeson’s portrayal of Block’s complex ex-cop, for me the Scudder books feature another powerful and dominating character: New York City.

AWATTLNCities are notoriously as fickle as unfaithful lovers, as sparklingly delightful in summer sun as they can be menacing and unpredictable as the winter twilight encroaches. Yet New York is a faithful mistress to Scudder, much like Elaine, his ex-prostitute girlfriend. She knows him well, her constant presence a reassurance, even if he must share her from time to time with strangers. If man’s inhumanity to man continues to etch deeper marks in Scudder, if – despite all that he has seen and learned of the victims he helps – he still strives to take everything in his stride, it is not the city that will let him down, desert him, shock or betray him. Indeed, while Scudder rarely comments objectively on New York, Block’s characterisations of its inhabitants – racially and culturally diverse, corrupt and noble, timeless and rudely modern, drunk and sober – are New York as much as the basements of churches, the diners and bars, the streets of the Village and the hotel room on the 50s Scudder inhabits. Likewise, Scudder lives around the clock of the twenty-four hour city, as able to assume the respectable routines of the worker bees as he is to sit out the small, dark hours in bars where the truth glistens deep in a glass of honey-coloured bourbon. He is both constantly Scudder and compellingly desperate not to be him any more. And if New York is a city where one can be anyone one wishes to be, then Scudder’s strength is his silent empathy with the victims who surely wish this had not happened to them.

For Scudder is, it seems to me, in pursuit of the restoration of equilibrium. Nothing can alter the path taken by the wayward bullet that killed Estrellita Rivera. And if in solving the crimes he is not in pursuit of justice as such, then he is certainly watching both sides of the scales, minutely and patiently adjusting and arranging the weight of consequence that will restore some sense of balance to those destabilised by the crimes that happen to them. Over the course of the series of books, Scudder’s own scales are eventually quietly and minutely adjusted by those close to him: Elaine, TJ, Jim Faber. And if the ground beneath him creaks and stirs much as it does when the A Train rattles through columns of steel, then it soon settles again.


EJ Knight is the author of Broadway Murder of 1928, available for Kindle from all Amazon sites.

A review of AWATT will appear shortly on this blog. In the meantime, check out Cadell Blackstock’s consideration of the pluses and pitfalls of adapting Scudder to the screen.

In admiration of….Ruth Dudley Edwards

In the latest in a series of blogs, new allonymbooks crime author EJ Knight discusses some favourite crime writers. This week, Ruth Dudley Edwards.

My next choice is a quirky one in that Ruth Dudley Edwards is more famous as a historian and journalist, including for The Economist and Financial Times. Since 1993, Dudley Edwards has also written a crime series based around the shenanigans of Robert Amiss and the memorable Ida Troutbeck.

In many ways, the series is less about ‘who-dunnit’, although each book has at its central story-line Amiss’ attempts to solve, or help the police solve, a vicious murder or murders, and more a vehicle for a funny, sharp and accurate satire on various pillars of the British establishment – from the civil service, to the Church of England, and to the British education system. In each book, Amiss is ‘persuaded’ to become involved by Troutbeck’s manoeuvrings and his own admiration for police detectives Milton and Pooley.

I read seven of the first eight in the series in the 1990s and remember vividly how upset I was that my copy of the second – The Saint Valentine’s Day Murders – had been printed so that I had the first hundred pages twice and no-more. My frustration was compounded by the fact that the bookstore had no more copies and all attempts to find another copy were fruitless. So, it was with great joy that I recently discovered that not only were all Dudley Edwards’ books now available on Kindle but also that, while I thought she had stopped writing fiction, Dudley Edwards had written another three in the series, with another on the way. Hooray!

Why do I keep coming back to these novels and why is Dudley Edwards my first choice for this blog? Because the books make me smile and keep reading. There are many great writers who have written elegant detective stories that could be considered great literary novels. But I didn’t enjoy reading them because they were so serious. Dudley Edwards is a wonderful writer – the plot moves with speed, the characterisation is sharp, and the dialogue is as real as it can be in written form – but what always stands out for me is that I feel happier once I’ve read her books. And it is for that reason that I will always keep them to read on a wet British afternoon (of which Dudley Edwards’ characters will know all too well).


EJ Knight is the author of the Lucille Landaus series of historical crime novels, the first of which –  Broadway Murder of 1928 – is excerpted here.

In admiration of…. Rex Stout

In the latest in a series of blogs, new allonymbooks crime author EJ Knight discusses some favourite crime writers. This week, American writer Rex Stout.

Rex Stout is a name which many readers may be unfamiliar with, indeed amid the wash of gritty Nordic and British crime, there might seem to be little to recommend a writer whose novels are at first glance so mild-mannered and dated to the time of their writing. Indeed, much of the action takes place in the brownstone home of a man who weighs “one sixth of a ton”, rather than on the mean streets of pre- and post-WWII New York. Yet the thirty or so novels Stout wrote featuring the intellectual giant Nero Wolfe, and his legman – the witty ladies’ man Archie Goodwin – are not only clever puzzles but also a fine portrait of a city and a country going through periods of enormous social change. The plots range widely from corporate and industrial intrigue, families in crisis, diplomacy, politics and the criminal underworld, to the recurrent impact of the war both collectively and individually. Wealth is perhaps more prominent than poverty, as both Wolfe and his clients live comfortably and Archie Goodwin’s taste in ladies generally runs to the more refined, such as socialite heiress Lily Rowan. But the darker, dirtier face of the city is glimpsed often enough in the diners and dark alleys observed by Wolfe’s secondary team of private detectives such as Saul Panzer.

Wolfe and Goodwin are in a marriage of unequals yet they complement each other most brilliantly. Wolfe is huge, temperamental, obsessive about his food, devoted to his orchids, a man of such utter ritual that he will not be disturbed for any crisis, even by his closest associates – Archie Goodwin and Fritz (the chef and majordomo). He refuses to leave the brownstone for anyone – client or cop – and could be seen as the extreme of the eccentric, individualistic private detective. Crimes are puzzles, criminals are like museum exhibits, to be studied and observed from many angles while Wolfe barely moves from his office chair. By contrast, Goodwin is the everyman: a connoisseur of women and violence, he is Wolfe’s eyes and ears out in the world, gliding easily between the criminal classes and the monied aristocracy, driving all over the city and the state, and it is he who tells the stories of the cases that Wolfe is asked to solve, and who paints the portraits of those entangled in the crimes.

The dialogue and first person narration in these books is what drives them both in story and quality. This quote from The Silent Speaker (1946) is typical of the way Stout captures the relationship between Wolfe and Goodwin:

“Nonsense.” Wolfe was peevish. “With an ordinary person that might be necessary, but Mr. Goodwin is trained, competent, reliable, and moderately intelligent.”

We aren’t told what Archie thinks of being described by his employer as “moderately intelligent” and it doesn’t matter, for Archie reports things exactly as they are, which is part of what makes him such a good detective. Hence his use of the word “peevish” – perhaps a less fashionable descriptor now yet for Goodwin it pins his employer’s mood precisely to the map, and for Stout it avoids slowing the rapid fire pacing of the dialogue with overly heavy description. But hence also the precision with which, in the same novel, Stout has Archie report the death of a beautiful woman outside the brownstone and chart the effect of her loss on him:

I do not ordinarily hunt for a cave in the middle of the biggest excitement and the most intense action but this seemed to hit me in a new spot or something, and anyhow there I was, trying to arrange my mind. Or maybe my feelings. All I knew was that something inside of me needed a little arranging.

And at the end of the same short chapter:

I had been sitting in my room twenty minutes when I noticed that I hadn’t drunk any milk, but I hadn’t spilled any from the glass.

There is little angst in these books, no great emotional swings and roundabouts as experienced by some of the other great detectives who get so personally involved. Nero Wolfe solves crimes for money, he is perhaps an intellectual mercenary for he forms no attachments to the victims. His endless battle with Inspector Cramer of the police is one for control of the facts and of his privacy – perhaps in equal measure – and the police are  as necessary an evil in tidying up and enacting the solutions Wolfe reaches, as the crimes are for Wolfe to fund his peculiar lifestyle.

So why would you read these books? They are historically dated, favour dialogue over action and the questing of motive over the complexity of plot. Stories are sometimes convoluted, there are often innumerable characters (all beautifully named) and Wolfe is at times so metronomically confined by his own routines as to be close to a parody of himself. But that is to oversimplify the charm of the books – any fan of Christie or Allingham or Sayers would find these just as compelling – and to belittle their lessons for us as writers. For they are a masterclass in how to use words very exactly, how to create a world without being too lavish in description, how to home in on what we really need to say about our characters. Not a word is wasted. The books rush past as easily as a fat airport paperback, but they do so without gloss or embellishment. Every sentence counts, every single observation Archie makes tells us what we need to know, and I for one could listen to him reading the telephone book.


EJ Knight is the author of the Lucille Landaus series of historical crime novels, the first of which –  Broadway Murder of 1928 – is excerpted here.

Many of the Nero Wolfe books are still in print and several have now been issued for Kindle. If you haven’t encountered Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin before, A&E made a series of films for television based on a number of the stories. Starring Maury Chaykin as Nero Wolfe and Timothy Hutton as Archie Goodwin, they are good adaptations of the novels and also fun to watch.

In admiration of… Andrea Camilleri

In a new series of blogs, new allonymbooks crime author EJ Knight discusses some favourite crime writers. 

Like Spenser’s Boston and Falco’s Rome, Montalbano’s Sicily is as rich a character as Montalbano himself in Andrea Camilleri’s novels. Indeed, Sicily is not just the setting for the books, its social, historical and geographical complexities are often themes in the crimes Montalbano investigates. Although Montalbano frequently rails against the iniquities of Italian life, bureaucracy, the media, the government and the legal system, the villagey Vigàta is a place where life goes on largely as it always has, its immoral undercurrents affected more by the prevailing winds of local corruption and social secrecy than by globalisation and international crime.

That is not to say that the crimes of Vigàta and Montelusa are not relevant to the non-Sicilian reader. The outside world infuses these towns with terrorism (The Snack Thief) and sex trafficking (The Shape of Water), but it is the communities’ ability to withstand the march of change and commit the most domestic of crimes which make these stories remarkable in many ways as well as thoroughly recognisable to the reader. They have a timeless quality, as though Vigàta is somehow slightly outside time, beyond the real world, that when foreigners arrive they wash up rather unexpectedly. There is something Christie-esque about Camilleri’s focus on the small dramas of family life and how they drive the individual to desperation and revenge. Montalbano resembles Poirot at times in his rituals and his personal quirks, and he has something of Miss Marple’s fusion of moral rectitude and relaxed worldliness: nothing seems to shock him but there is much that offends – neglect, abandonment, the corruption of the young and the innocent.

Although the novels focus on Montalbano, his colleagues make the novels dynamic and stop them being purely the stories of a strong, individual cop-chararacter. Indeed, Montalbano is possibly not quite remarkable enough to carry the books on his own for he is not brutal or selfish or self-destructive enough to ape that vein of the detective genre. He is flawed, but rationally so – he likes his independence, his food, his books and his swimming, but he doesn’t have Morse’s eccentricities, nor does he enforce his solitude to the reckless endangerment of the case. He likes the puzzle but he likes his life, and this balance is essential, perhaps best demonstrated by his inability to give himself up entirely to Livia because the case is always as important. In a sense this is where Camilleri is at his most brilliant, for he has diffused the quirks of one man among the many: Mimi Augello is the lothario, Fazio the detail-obsessive, Catarella the fool, Tomasseo and Pasquano the extremes of law enforcement eccentricity. Camilleri is also an incredibly funny writer: satirical, comedic, farcical, all the shades of humour. And the character of Catarella, while comic, does not have a monopoly for Montalbano is able to laugh at himself and others, perpetuating the novels’ incisive edge.

Not content with near-perfect dramatisations of the books, RAI Italian television has collaborated with Camilleri to expand on a novella to introduce Il giovane Montalbano, the young Montalbano in his first years in Vigàta. In addition to brilliant casting in the regression of the familiar characters to their younger versions, we are discovering the younger Montalbano as he discovers himself, exploring his authority, his approach to understanding people and solving the crime, the way he builds his relationships. It would be delightful to read more stories from this era, for the television adaptations lack the internalising monologues where we hear Montalbano’s voice more distinctly.

Nordic crime fiction has been fashionable for some years, its cutting edge darkness sweeping through other crime writing, but Camilleri’s smaller scale Italian crimes, while no less savage, speak to both a cultural optimism and a microcosm where values are preserved. He is no knight in shining armour, but he is a hero in the defence of a way of life.

Andrea Camilleri’s books are available from all major retailers in paper and e-book form in excellent English translations by Stephen Sartarelli, as well as the original Italian. DVDs have also been released of the television adaptations of the Montalbano and young Montalbano series.

EJ Knight‘s novel Broadway Murder of 1928, the first in the Lucille Landau series, is out now at all Amazon retailers including UK, US and Canada.