Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Book Report: The Night And The Music

From Seven Years Ago...

Thanks to Lawrence Block having a great time with this new e-book technology and rounding up his old work, dusting it off, and putting it up on Kindle – I've been reading a lot of his stuff lately. I've been a fan since I bought SINS OF THE FATHERS at DeLauers News Stand in Oakland because it had some James M. Cain quote on the cover – and I love James M. Cain. Block has been a prolific writer since he was in college – check out AFTERTHOUGHTS for a strange history of his career in the form of collected afterwords to his books – and the most important lesson we can learn from him is...


This is a lesson that I have recently learned while expanding the Blue Books. If you seldom write anything, you end up with not much material to collect and publish somewhere. On the Blue Books I find that I have a pile of articles and Script Tips and long answers to people's online questions that for some reason I saved (most are not saved anywhere – maybe a million words lost). And all of these things can be rewritten and used to expand the Blue Books. Someone once asked me a question about some subject, I gave a long and detailed answer, and now that answer goes into a Blue Book and helps a bunch of people. But that only works if you've done the writing first. If you *have* the material. The same is true with screenplays – if someone is looking for a female lead thriller with limited locations – I have something like that. Because I wrote it instead of just thought about writing it. (Though, I have *many* stories I only thought about writing – and I don't have anything to show for that.)

Well, Lawrence Block wrote a pile of short stories and novels and novellas. In AFTERTHOUGHTS he talks about writing a novel a month for one publisher, and then setting up a deal with another publisher for *another* novel a month. Dude was a machine! And you might think that the stuff he just jammed out under some crazy deadline would be crap... but it's not. That ends up being the strange thing about reading these guys who write fast – speed has nothing to do with accuracy. They are two different things. A pulp writer like Walter Gibson could turn out a novel (or two) a month and those books read better than much of the stuff that some writer spent years to write today. And those Walter Gibson titles are still in print! Block was writing two novels a month for years when he started out... and now most (or all) of those novels have reverted back to him – and he's putting them up on Amazon for Kindle and B&N for Nook (and other formats). He has all of these books and short stories that he owns, and he's not just embracing new technology and putting them on Kindle – he's freakin' all over it! It's been fun to watch him progress – from some short stories with no covers, to some photo of Block as the cover (the one with the cute Panda from his China trip on the cover of some violent action story was kind of amusing), to his current covers that kick ass. He's become an e-book maven! And he has a huge catalogue of material to release.

So the lesson I have learned from all of this is – write a stack of stories and scripts! Later these things will be worth something. That *idea* you had yesterday? Why didn't you just write it? Then you would *have something*. And if the writing sucks – just rewrite it later! But a story unwritten is... well, it's nothing! Block has been taking all of these things he's written long ago and not only turned them into some money for his pocket, he's made these stories available to all of his long time fans... and probably created *new* fans. He would not have been able to do that without having written them in the first place.

Which brings us to THE NIGHT AND THE MUSIC, which is a collection of Matthew Scudder short stories. After I bought those first three Matt Scudder novels at DeLauer's Newsstand in Oakland (12th Street BART station) I waited for more... and there weren't any. But there were some short stories every once in a while in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine or Alfred Hitchcock Magazine (I don't remember which) and it was always cool to see that Scudder was still alive and kicking... and eventually the novels came back.

I have probably said this here before, but SINS OF THE FATHERS is one of my favorite mystery novels of all time... because it's all about the characters. Matt Scudder's investigation is more about *why* these people did these things than *who* did them. He really digs in to motivations... and traces the whole crime back to one moment in a character's past when she was a little girl. That moment triggered at least two deaths.

After the first three Scudder novels, Block moved on to other characters... but every once in a while had an idea for short story with the character – and now those are collected here along with some new stories. To make this world even smaller for me – the introduction is written by screenwriter Brian Koppelman (ROUNDERS, SOLITARY MAN) who has some knowledge of my existence.

If you don't know Scudder – he was a NYC cop who drank on duty, took a bribe now and then, and was no saint... but when he kills a kid by accident, he gets fired from the force, drinks even more and loses his wife and kids to divorce... and now lives in a crappy hotel downtown and hangs out in Armstrong's Bar (and some others) and will help out “friends” for a fee. He's not a private detective, he's just a guy with skills. He drops 10% of whatever he makes into the poor box of the nearest Catholic Church, even though he's not much of a believer. He's a man riddled with guilt who figures helping people with his donations might make him feel better about himself... I don't think it ever does. If you want to hire him, you drop by Armstrong's and the bartender or waitress will point him out.

The first short story in the collection I read in AHMM when it was first published – I had a subscription. It's about one of those waitresses at Armstrong's who takes a dive out of her apartment window. Her sister hires Scudder, because she's sure her sister was murdered. The story takes all kinds of twists – but the great thing about it is that it all comes back to motivations and characters and the *human* side of crime. The second story is about a dead bag lady – one of those street people you might see every day but never think about. After she's killed, her lawyer finds Scudder in the bar and tells him she left him some money – not much. Scudder feels guilty getting money for nothing, and decides to find out who she was and how she died. Again, instead of seeing the surface of the person, Scudder really digs in to who the person was... and you will never look at a homeless person the same way after reading this story. Each of these stories takes some person you might never think of – that guy who bought a round in the bar once – and digs deep into their lives, and you learn about them *and* Scudder in the process.

One of the great things with the stories is that they often explore “holes” in the series between novels (the new novel A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF does this) – and one of the stories flashes back to *before* SINS OF THE FATHERS to give us a story of Scudder while he was still a cop on the force solving a crime with his old partner. The cool part of this is that the partner is talked about in other books (and may even be a character in some books – I forget... hey, a good reason to re-read them all!) - but here we get a story about a young Scudder working with his partner back in the days before his life imploded... as remembered by the old Scudder. Again, the great thing here is that it's about his partner and a sort of mixed up morality where sometimes doing the wrong thing is really the right thing. A story that will haunt you – as most of these will. You'll be thinking about the bag lady for months, I guarantee it.

When we get to the new stories – and Mick Ballou, the retired hitman/mobster who shows up in later Scudder novels – the tales are full of melancholy and regret and deal with aging and death. Scudder has kicked the bottle, taken up the 12 steps, and has a new wife... who was part of his old cop life. The last story (brand new - written for this collection) takes place at Mick's after hours bar on the night before it meets the wrecking ball – and how reckless driven young men end up being thoughtful old men remembering their pasts... kind of like me remembering reading most of these stories when they were first printed and telling you about it here.

The great thing about Scudder as a character is that he has gone through profound changes in his life – ups and downs – yet continues to be a series character that we look forward to spending more time with. Other series characters either don't change and often get stale, or change in ways that seem to remove their emotional problems leaving us with an empty coat solving crimes. These stories show Scudder at different points in his life, dealing with different issues in his life and those issues as a doorway into the problems of others. It's a great collection of stories... and makes me glad I happened to walk into DeLauers Newsstand that day and spot that one paperback out of the thousands and met Matt Scudder.

- Bill

Note: Picture of DeLauers above was taken from my cellphone over the holidays (when I actually read this book) - it's still there.



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