Friday, November 18, 2011

Book Review: A Dance at the Slaughterhouse

Lawrence Block
Awards: Edgar
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

I am a huge, huge Lawrence Block fan. My love affair with his books started about twenty years ago when my dear great aunt lent me her copy of Eight Million Ways to Die. Since then I’ve read everything Block has written that I could get my hands on.

A Dance at the Slaughterhouse is the ninth installment of the Matt Scudder series, which is Block’s best series by far. The Scudder books are not only extremely gritty murder mysteries but also a complex and realistic record of the main character coming to grips with his alcoholism.

Matt Scudder was a brilliant, if sometimes ethically questionable, detective in the NYPD who resigned from the force after a bullet he fired (while drunk and on duty) ricocheted and killed a little girl. Since then, he has been working as an unlicensed private detective and struggling to stay sober.

By the time of Slaughterhouse, Scudder is has been in AA for several years. He has a stable relationship with his girlfriend Elaine, resists drinking through the whole book, and pursues two cases at the same time: tracking down the producers of a snuff film and figuring out whether a wealthy lawyer did or did not kill his wife.

It’s a shame that this is the only Edgar that Block has won. Slaughterhouse is a perfectly good book, but my favorite Scudder stories are the ones earlier in the timeline (like Eight Million Ways to Die and When the Sacred Ginmill Closes), when he is in the initial fits and starts of his recovery. They make you suffer right along with him as he goes through agonizing backslides which only make it that much harder for him to climb back up onto the wagon.

No matter how long he has been sober, Scudder is (and you are) always, always conscious of alcohol around him. He’s confronted with it all the time, like when he goes out to dinner and the dinner menu says, playfully, “A day without wine is like a day without sunshine!” When his cases aren’t going well, or he’s under stress, it’s doubly hard; the first thing he always fantasizes about is a glass of bourbon. Or a bottle of bourbon.

At one point in Slaughterhouse, Scudder meets a contact, a young cop, in a bar. The cop is drunk, argumentative, and clearly on the same path Scudder himself was on. After making one attempt to get their meeting to happen somewhere else, Scudder eventually chooses to leave the cop there in the bar. He feels guilty about leaving without making more of an effort, but his sponsor reminds him that, as an alcoholic, your first responsibility is not to drink. You cannot always save others because it may take all you have just to do that.

Blurb writers are always comparing Block to Elmore Leonard. I don’t know why they think this is a compliment, given how great Block is and how annoying Leonard is. I wish that Hollywood would stop making movies out of Leonard’s books and make a good movie out of one of Block’s. Eight Million Ways to Die was made into a movie, and it does star Jeff Bridges, who of course is fantastic, but the adaptation is disappointing. Instead of New York, it takes place in Los Angeles, where Matt Scudder definitely doesn’t belong, and Scudder has resigned from the police force because he killed a drug dealer, rather than a little girl; not quite the same thing.

For those who like mysteries but for whom the Matt Scudder series is a little too dark and/or explicit, Block’s Burglar series is tamer but just as well-written. The central character, Bernie Rhodenbarr, is a used bookstore owner by day and a burglar by night. He always manages to stumble across corpses while on his night job and has to solve the murders himself to prevent them from convicting him of the murder.

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