The Devil Knows You're Dead
Lawrence Block’s novels featuring private investigator Matthew Scudder are recognizable by the gumshoe poetry of their five-word titles (A Walk Among the Tombstones, Time to Murder and Create, Eight Million Ways to Die), by their feel for begrimed, gloomy New York geography, by their morose I’ve-seen-worse-than-I’ll-ever-tell narration, by the authenticity of their harrowing plots and firmly drawn characters, and, troublingly, by their failure to achieve the breakout success that other, lesser series have enjoyed in recent years. You won’t find Block’s novels high on best-seller lists, but find them you should: The Matthew Scudder novels, of which The Devil Knows You’re Dead (Morrow, $20) is the 11th, are detective fiction at its finest—lean, solid, and always intelligent.
You can start with any novel in the Scudder series, but, unlike some of his contemporaries, Block allows old history to resonate in his protagonist’s life for years afterward. If The Devil Knows You’re Dead (the title comes from a line in an Irish blessing that begins ”May you be in Heaven an hour before…”) is your introduction to Scudder, here’s what you need to know: He’s in his late 40s, thick and tough, a recovering alcoholic who can be found in the coffee shops of Manhattan’s West 50s (”The neighborhood is Clinton…when they’re talking gentrification and tree planting,” he says. ”When it’s gunshots and crack vials, then it’s Hell’s Kitchen”), in AA meetings, or in the apartment of his girlfriend, the magnificently savvy all-but-retired call girl and real estate investor Elaine.
Other novels in the series have drawn Scudder toward murder and mayhem, complete with apocalyptic, blood-splashed finales. The Devil is a gentler and, in many ways, more painful installment: Although Scudder spends his billable hours probing the death of a yuppie husband—apparently gunned down by a neighborhood crazy while using a pay phone—much time is also devoted to touching developments on the Elaine front and to Scudder’s relationship with a dying male friend.
These encounters are good news for those who know that among the chief pleasures of Block’s writing is the perfect pitch of his tossed-off dialogue, which here touches on the book Final Exit, the relative textures of bagels and doughnuts, and the unique career problems of pre-op transsexual hookers. Lots of detective novelists—including Block—can come up with tight plots. Not many would pause to let a character watch an episode of L.A. Law, then announce, ”I hate to say this, and I know it’s politically incorrect, but I’ve had it up to here with Benny.” The Devil Knows You’re Dead is a pleasure even when it does nothing more than linger over one more cup of coffee. B+