July 13, 2012

The Night and the Music: the seductions of Lawrence Block

Lawrence Block's The Night and the Music has a kind of finality to it that his many readers will be sorry about. Not a finality suggesting that he's about to hang up his pen, but that it might be closing time for his most famous creation, Matt Scudder.

Scudder is an ex-cop who gave up the Job when he accidentally shot a young girl while in pursuit of a felon. Since then he's lived on the edge of police-work by helping people out - sometimes people he knows; often those who know about him. He doesn't take a fee, but he does like his expenses to be covered. As he isn't a cop - and not even a licensed detective - he doesn't have the authority of the law behind him, so he has to grease a few palms or buy a few drinks. Or even 'buy a policeman a hat' - which appears to be slang for giving a cop 25 dollars in order to get some official info.
Unlike previous Scudder books, this is a collection of short stories. Some of them stand alone and appear to have been written a good while ago. Others are linked, or have links forced upon them when Block writes something that joins the dots.

Block is one of the easiest writers to read that you'll ever have the good fortune to come across. He doesn't seem to write prose so much as invite you to listen to him (or Matt Scudder) talk. You're engaged in a conversation. And while admittedly you can't talk back, you don't mind because Matt's voice is so calm, rational and entertaining that you wouldn't want to interrupt the flow anyway. In this passage Matt is examining the spot where a young girl he knows had apparently leaped to her death:

After a while I walked over to her building and stood on the pavement in front of it. The florist’s truck had moved on and I examined the street where she’d landed. There was, as Vinnie had assured me, no trace of what had happened. I tilted my head back and looked up, wondering what window she might have fallen from, and then I looked down at the pavement and then up again, and a sudden rush of vertigo made my head spin. In the course of all this I managed to attract the attention of the building’s doorman and he came out to the curb anxious to talk about the former tenant. He was a black man about my age and he looked as proud of his uniform as the guy in the Marine Corps recruiting poster. It was a good-looking uniform, shades of brown, epaulets, gleaming brass buttons.
 There are several clever tricks in this straightforward passage. First, he begins by saying 'After a while'. He's not specific - he doesn't say 'At two o'clock' or even 'ten minutes later'. What the vagueness of  'after a while' achieves is to suggest that actually he's not on any timetable or agenda - he's an ordinary guy with an interest in the deceased girl, but his actions here are unmotivated.

The next notable moment is when he looks up and down quickly and suffers an instant of vertigo. Who hasn't done that? But Block remembers it and puts it into the actions of this ordinary guy - he's a human being like us, with physical responses to his actions. He's not some kind of super-sleuth who is all brain and no body.

Next he explains 'In the course of all this ... '  The phrasing here points out the comic nature of what he's doing, because he 'managed to attract the attention' of the doorman. Again, his actions aren't deliberate - he hasn't gone over to ask questions or grill the doorman about what happened. Everything comes to him, he doesn't go searching it out. So Matt is still almost the bystander - interested, but not involved.

Finally, Block gets in some artful description. He doesn't just describe the doorman's uniform. More subtly, he says the man 'looked as proud of his uniform as the guy in the Marine Corps recruiting poster. It was a good-looking uniform ... ' Cleverly, Block the writer tells us something about the doorman at the same time as he's describing what Matt sees - the extensive uniform.

This paragraph shows all the casual artistry that an experienced writer can bring to something apparently straightforward. A reader would typically be unaware of the subtle information presented here even while he or she was being seduced into the mystery. So when Matt is hired later by the jumper's sister to investigate the death, it seems we already have one foot in the story and we're not given the typical 'client walks into PI's office' scenario.

Block's ability to create interest out of the simplest of subjects is shown in the later stories, too. The eponymous story is hung on the slightest of incidents - Matt and his wife, Elaine, leave an opera and don't want the night to end. So they go to a couple of joints in New York where they can hear jazz:

We caught a cab to a new place I’d heard about on the ground floor of a high-rise on Amsterdam in the Nineties. The crowd was salt and pepper, white college kids and black strivers, blonde fashion models and black players. The group was mixed, too; the tenor man and the bass player were white, the pianist and the drummer black. The maître d’ thought he recognized me and put us at a table near the bandstand. They were a few bars into “Satin Doll” when we sat down and they followed it with a tune I recognized but couldn’t name. I think it was a Thelonious Monk composition, but that’s just a guess. I can hardly ever name the tune unless there’s a lyric to it that sticks in my mind.
Here again note the self-deprecation in 'The maître d’ thought he recognized me ... ' Block refuses to make Scudder overly pro-active, as would be the case with most first-person narratives: I did this, I did that ... and so forth. He places himself lower in the hierarchy even in his own story.

What holds this particular story together is the manner in which Matt and Elaine talk to each other about their past. They share memories and an understanding of the kind of music that they like. Opera is fine, but too sad. In the jazz music they listen to afterwards there are 'blue notes', but 'Nobody dies.' The meanings of the story are as concise and condensed as anything in Chekov or Raymond Carver, while the dialogue is more entertaining than anything in either of those lugubrious writers.

Block seems to have reached a level of craft now that he hardly seems to be working at all. I'm sure he'd quite rightly cuff me about the head for saying that, but his 'writing' voice seems perfectly attuned to a conversational tone, so that there's no effort at all required from his readers. Elmore Leonard has the same gift, but throws his voice into a range of different characters, meaning that there's slightly more strain in evidence from time to time. Block is always within his range, even when writing about characters such as the hitman in his series of the same name - the awful acts of a professional assassin are recuperated into the calm, logical thought processes of the stamp collector that he is in his spare time. Block's sanity, calmness and rational approach to the aberrations of human beings create a world in which you too would like to live for a while, just so you could have clever conversations with smart people who know exactly what you mean because you've shared the same experience - you're a human being.

The latest news is that there's to be a Matt Scudder film starring Liam Neeson. Well, he's a bit tall and a bit Irish for my view of Scudder, but he has the requisite level of integrity and intelligence. And he looks like he could have been a drunk at one time, as was Scudder. It will be interesting to see whether the calm tone of the Scudder books will be maintained or whether the film will be a CGI gore-fest featuring car-chases and explosions. My money's on the latter, but I wouldn't be disappointed if it were the former. At any rate, maybe the books will pick up in sales and Block will be forced to continue to write more Scudder books. That would definitely be a Good Thing.

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