Block, Lawrence. When the Sacred Ginmill Closes.

NY: Arbor House, 1986.

It’s 1975 and Matthew Scudder hasn’t been a New York City cop for several years. And when he quit being a police detective, he also quit being a husband and father, at least of the live-in variety. Now he lives in a residential hotel in a relatively cheap part of Manhattan and spends his time drifting from saloon to bar, drinking with his friends (his “saloon friends,” he makes a distinction) and occasionally earning a little money as an unofficial, unlicensed private investigator.

His is a world of bar owners who cheat on their taxes, and nobody thinks twice about it, of people living in single rooms, of men and women getting drunk before noon. It’s not a pleasant place but Matt seems at home there.

In the wee hours of a July morning, he’s getting quietly smashed in an Irish-run after-hours joint when two masked men burst in and grab all the cash out of the register and the safe. A few days later, the IRA-connected owners offer a sizable reward for the names and whereabouts of the robbers, and everyone knows what lies in store for them if they’re found. At the same time, the wife of one of Matt’s drinking buddies is murdered in their home while the husband is out on the town with his girlfriend. The authorities all seem to think the husband is the guilty party, either in person or by proxy, and he hires Matt to dig up evidence clearing him. And then another of his friends, partner in a bar he frequents regularly, has his “honest” accounts books stolen with a threat that they will be turned over to the feds if a ransom isn’t forthcoming. Can Matt, with all his experience of bad guys, help deal with this? And that’s the set-up. The story builds slowly as the reader tags along with Scudder, watching over his shoulder as his initially almost aimless inquiries gradually acquire focus, as he turns up clues and hints and turns them over in his mind until the epiphany strikes. And the resolutions of the several mysteries are anything but cut and dried when it comes to justice.

Block is highly regarded as a novelist, and justly so. He had already written five Scudder novels and figured the series had played itself out naturally — and then he had to fulfill a contract obligation with a short story, which led to this book, which led to eleven more books (so far), each of them set in Scudder’s real-time present, in which he is now a recovering alcoholic. But this retrospective look back at the early days of Matt’s second career is one of his best, both in Block’s own opinion and in that of his fans and the reviewers. In most ways, Scudder is the complete opposite of Dirty Harry or Harry Bosch. He’s very low-key, minding his own business, never looking for a fight (not when he’s at least half-sober) but not backing away from the possibility. And as he walks and takes the subway about the city, he seems to stop at almost every watering-hole along the way for a beer and a shot. Block’s style is strong on slightly off-center dialogue (these are the conversations of heavy drinkers). His descriptions show us a side of New York you would have to be a native to love. And he tells a story you have to believe.


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