His last name notwithstanding, Lawrence Block clearly doesn’t suffer from writer’s block. Over the past 40 years, he’s penned more than 50 books and sustained no fewer than five series, including the adventures of lighthearted, light-fingered burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr and globe-trotting soldier of fortune Evan Tanner. Now, on the 25th anniversary of his introduction in The Sins of the Fathers, Manhattan private detective Matt Scudder, Block’s most enduring creation, returns for his 15th mystery, the enjoyably wistful Hope to Die.
A recovering alcoholic before recovering alcoholics were cool, the 62-year-old Scudder has been sober for 18 years. The onetime NYPD cop has recently surrendered his PI license after abetting a criminal friend, and he no longer needs to work, thanks to second wife Elaine’s profitable rental-property holdings. Still, that doesn’t stop him from investigating crimes like the grisly slaying of a prominent New York City lawyer and his novelist wife in their Upper West Side brownstone. When the alleged perps turn up dead in an apparent murder-suicide, the police close the case — but Scudder doesn’t.
Even as he mellows into senior citizenship — he’s a grandfather now, after all — Scudder remains a compelling figure: a cultured Manhattanite with a taste for classical music, jazz, and boxing, as well as a hard-core Luddite who functions without a car, cell phone, or computer (he’s surprised to learn MacAddict magazine isn’t ”for people who filled up regularly on Happy Meals and Egg McMuffins”). Yet as is the case with all the Scudder mysteries, Hope to Die’s most fascinating character is New York City itself. (If only somebody had told coscreenwriter Oliver Stone that before he adapted Eight Million Ways to Die in 1986 and pointlessly transported Jeff Bridges’ Scudder to L.A.) The author is a longtime Big Apple resident, and he knows every inch of it, from Alphabet City to Marble Hill, ”which is technically part of Manhattan, although there are people living there who think they’re in the Bronx.” Block packs the book with only-in-New York facts, among them a running gag about how Coney Island Avenue doesn’t actually go through Coney Island.
Of course, in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack, Hope to Die is tinged with even more melancholy than most of Block’s work. The time when the entire city could be obsessed with a simple double-murder case seems like a different epoch. Even though they were written before Sept. 11, certain lines in Hope to Die now resonate with a sickening irony, like when an NYPD detective observes that ”the crime rate’s down, but I swear the guys who are out there are trying to make up for it by being twice as nasty.” A few references, like speculation about a possible future Republican administration, make the work feel even more dated.
Hope to Die isn’t a great whodunit; like its protagonist, it sags a bit around the middle. What sustains your interest are the vividly drawn locals whom Scudder encounters, such as Danny Boy Bell, an albino African-American informant who ”manages to see about as much daylight as an overly cautious vampire,” and T.J., the PI’s streetwise assistant whose myriad aliases include T.J. Goldberg, ”Whoopi’s kid brother” (an in-joke, since the character of Bernie Rhodenbarr was rewritten for the actress in another ill-conceived Block adaptation, 1987’s Burglar). Block also builds tension by intercutting between the private eye’s POV and the murderer’s (although the killer’s identity isn’t revealed until late in the 320-page tome). The culprit’s increasing thirst for blood is especially compelling. In one chilling scene, the sociopath hesitates before offing a victim, realizing ”he has all of this feeling for her, a feeling rather like love, or, more accurately, like what he imagines love must be like.”
Such unembroidered prose is Block’s stock-in-trade, and it perfectly suits Hope to Die’s rueful tale. An affecting subplot finds Scudder dealing with the sudden death of his ex-wife on Long Island, where he discovers that birch trees he planted thirty-some years ago have already expired. ”That doesn’t seem like a very long time for a tree,” the detective ruminates. ”But things don’t always last as long as you expect them to.” One can only hope the Matt Scudder series will live on.