Tuesday, May 22, 2012

When the Sacred Ginmill Closes by, Lawrence Block

I had the sort of hangover I knew enough to treat with respect.

Matthew Scudder is an alcoholic.  Above all else, ex-cop, unlicensed private eye, ex-husband, father, that's what he is.  A highly functioning alcoholic, yes. When the Sacred Ginmill Closes starts with Scudder drinking at an after-hours bar called Morrissey’s (“The legal closing hour for bars in the city of New York is 4:00 a.m., but Morrissey’s was an illegal establishment and was thus not bound by regulations of that sort”). Two masked gunmen break in and knock over the joint; taking the cashbox on the counter, another box in a safe, even a collection jar for IRA loyalists.  Scudder agrees to help the Morrisseys, a drinking buddy ("Telephone Tommy") accused of killing his wife, and his old bartender Skip who is being blackmailed after the honest books from his bar is stolen.

Scudder is a unique character in many ways.  Even though he takes on three cases, he seems to half-ass his way though all but Skip's.  While he's technically an unlicensed PI, he considers himself just a guy who does favors for friends for money.  His top priority is finding enough cash to get his next drink.

Another thing that sets him apart is how he solves the case(s).  While other PI's would show you how the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle fit together, Scudder isn't quite sure how he knows what he knows.  But if you look back (there's an early conversation with the blackmailers with a huge clue), you can see that author Lawrence Block has put all the pieces there for you to find.  In fact, there are big clues to character motivations in the first three pages.

This shows that Block is a master at the top of his game.  He sets up all these things you "know" that when the ending comes, it seems perfectly obvious without being telegraphed.  It's a subtle, sneaky book.

It's full of little interesting character moments, too.  Throughout the book, Scudder stops in at various churches across New York and slips a good chunk of his earnings into the poor box.  He's not pious, he even explains that he sometimes just sits quietly in the pew for a few minutes not thinking of anything, and it seems more out of habit than anything.  But it's a telling character trait.

One of the great through lines of the entire Scudder series is his descent into alcoholism and his struggles with sobriety (he decides to get clean in book #5 Eight Million Ways to Die).  There's a fun sequence late in the book where Scudder takes stock and tries to figure out how sauced he was the night before:
It was no use.  I couldn't remember anything after I'd assured Skip that Frank and Jesse were living on borrowed time.  Maybe I went home right away, maybe I sat drinking with him until dawn.  I had no way of knowing. [...]My door was bolted.  That was a good sign.  I couldn't have been in too bad shape if I'd remembered to bolt the door.  On the other hand, my pants were tossed over the chair.  It would have been better if they'd been hung in the closet.  Then again, they weren't in a tangled heap on the floor, nor was I still wearing them. The great detective, sifting clues, trying to figure out how bad he'd been last night.

Another different thing about Ginmill is that the resolution of the cases doesn't seem like the most important thing, but rather what the various characters do with the information and the repercussions of those actions.  In this way, Scudder bridges the gap between the classic PI and its more modern incarnation.

I'd never read a Scudder novel before, but I didn't feel lost despite this being the sixth book in the series.  I'm probably going to pick around in the series (seeing which books get high marks), but I'm definitely going to read more Block.

Even if you're not a crime fan, this one is worth the read.

The title When the Sacred Ginmill Closes comes from the Dave Van Ronk  song "Last Call", which appears a couple times in the book.  Consider this your second song of the week:

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