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.

Lawrence Block: How many novelists does it take to change a lightbulb?

This week we are delighted that Lawrence Block, the incredibly prolific, endlessly successful and thoroughly engaging writer of  books of all hues, has spared a few minutes to chat with our own Cadell Blackstock. And if you want to know how many novelists it takes to change a lightbulb, read on….

Larry, thanks very much for sparing time to stop by allonymbooks for a chat. You’ve been really busy lately issuing your earlier novels in e-book form. What has direct publishing offered you, as an already experienced and highly successful print novelist?

Direct publishing to Amazon, Nook and Smashwords has given a new life to quite a few of my out-of-print titles. I’ve been writing for over fifty years, and my backlist is enormous, and I’m delighted that my early work can reach a new audience.

And I’ve also self-published some new work. A collection of columns for stamp collectors, “Generally Speaking,” struck me as having too small and specialized an audience to interest a print publisher, but worth making available as an eBook. So I published it, and every month a few people pick it up. Similarly, I’m planning to ePublish a pair of collections of my assorted non-fiction.

You are renowned for your excellent advice on writing, so what have you learned from the direct publishing process and your forays into social media that you wish someone had told you early on?

Hmmm. I don’t know that anyone could have told me this, or that I could have taken it in, but I’m struck constantly these days by the pace at which the whole world of publishing is changing. (I’m sure that’s no less true of the world outside publishing, but it’s particularly noticeable here.)

What’s it been like getting reacquainted with some of the characters from your early years as a writer? Had you remembered them better or worse than they are?

I don’t spend a lot of time revisiting early work. And, in fact, I’ve learned not to judge what I wrote years ago. For many years I tried to disassociate myself from early pseudonymous work, and was in fact sustained by the thought that the books had not been printed on acid-free paper. (God speed the acid, I was apt to say.) But who am I to say which of my books a reader ought to like?

As you know, my central character Crash Cole is a bit of a rake, a bit of a cad, a man no father would want his daughter (or granddaughter) to date. Who among your characters would you prefer stayed well away from the ladies of the Block family?

I think my daughters and granddaughters can take care of themselves.

In Don Giovanni, the opera that Crash Cole is loosely based on, Don Giovanni is invited to dinner in hell by the man he has killed. Who would be at your ‘dinner party from hell’?

As age turns me increasingly antisocial, I’ve come to regard all dinner parties as infernal in origin.

Crash is also a collector of sexual conquests, much as Keller is a collector of stamps, and you are a collector of countries visited. Is there anything else you would start collecting now (other than more royalties!), were money no object?

I don’t think so. Age, I’m sure, is a factor here. It undercuts the urge to possess. My wife and I discovered some years ago that our admiration of an object no longer embodied the urge to acquire it.

Lastly, a quick word on the upcoming film of A Walk Among the Tombstones. I blogged a few months ago about the adaptation, and on the experience of watching novels one loves turn flesh on film. Are there any of your other novels you would like to see made into film or TV?

I have high hopes for the film, and enjoyed my several visits to the set. Liam Neeson is brilliant in the role of Matt Scudder, and of course I hope the film’s enough of a hit to lead to further installments. Of the Scudder books, I’ve always that A Ticket to the Boneyard is particularly filmable.

As for what else might work, well, the most important factor is the enthusiasm of the filmmaker. Writer/director Scott Frank got interested in A Walk Among the Tombstones a good fifteen years ago, and stuck with it until it finally happened. I’d like to see Keller on the screen—ideally, I would think, as an edgy cable series, but possibly as a feature. I’d like to see someone do right by Bernie Rhodenbarr.

Ultimately, though, I’m most interested in my books as books. And, through the miracle of eBooks, virtually everything I’ve written over the years is now eVailable. Neat, innit?

Neat indeed! And I think everyone who has enjoyed Bernie Rhodenbarr would like to see someone do right by him. Anyway, Larry, thank you so much for sharing a few minutes of your time with us.

By the way, how many novelists does it take to change a lightbulb?

Novelists never want to change anything.

Lawrence Block’s latest Keller novel, Hit Me, is available in hardback and e-book. The film version of his Matt Scudder novel A Walk Among the Tombstones, starring Liam Neeson, is released in 2014.  And details of all his many other excellent novels and books on writing and stamps are available at his terrific website. You can also visit LB’s Bookstore on eBayLB’s Facebook Fan Page and follow him on Twitter @Lawrence Block

Cadell Blackstock’s satire on sex and celebrity, Crash Cole in ‘The Rake Spared’, is available on Kindle at all Amazon sites including Amazon UK and Amazon US.