Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Review - THE NIGHT AND THE MUSIC, by Lawrence Block

Telemachus Press, 9781937387310 (ebook), 9781937698071 (Epub), 9781937387327 (paperback)

It’s no secret that in my other life (that of an unrepentant writer of PI fiction), I have always acknowledged the debt I owe to Lawrence Block’s magnificent creation, Matt Scudder. So the moment I realised Block’s new collection of short stories, THE NIGHT AND THE MUSIC, focussed on the PI who used to do “favours for friends”, I was sold. Block and Scudder are a powerhouse combination, but I admit I was intrigued to see how this combination would work in the short story format, as a great deal of what I loved about the Scudder novels was the way that he would intertwine themes and ideas with the main action. Thus the novels were not merely about crime, but about alcoholism, about dealing with past sins and future change, and of course the evolving cityscape of New York. Its worth noting that before I ever visited NYC, my impressions were formed by constant viewing of NYPD Blue and of course the Scudder novels.

This collection maintains all these elements from the Scudder series, and a whole lote more besides. THE NIGHT AND THE MUSIC collates shorts from various sources and inspirations (which are detailed in Block’s intriguing afterward) and details moments from over 50 years of Scudder’s life. So here we meet Scudder as he was in his uniform days (in the very clever LET’S GET LOST) and see him through his alcoholic years, his first attempts at sobriety and his more sober senior years.

The stories themselves range from clever mystery construction (OUT THE WINDOW) to odd and affecting viginettes from Scudder’s life (THE NIGHT AND THE MUSIC and MICK BALLOU LOOKS AT THE BLANK SCREEN) to affecting glimpses of the transient nature of life in Scudder’s NYC (the quite wonderful, A CANDLE FOR THE BAG LADY) and a whole lot more besides. Scudder’s always been as much about character as he is about crime solving and here we get the evolution of a character through a series of short and often sharply penned stories that grip the reader from the first paragraph and linger for a long time afterward. As a reader, I tend to read short collections in gulps and it’s the rare anthology where I finish one story and then immediately start another. But with THE NIGHT AND THE MUSIC, I found myself thinking, “oh, one more short won’t hurt” and suddenly realised I was closing in on the end of the book before I knew what was happening.

Of course all of this emotional connection with Scudder may mean that the collection may not be the best starting off point for newcomers to Scudder (there’s a great deal of history to the character that might better require the breathing room afforded of a novel to elucidate the uninitiated) but that’s a minor criticism and Block handles any necessary exposition with grace and humour. The result is the feeling of dipping in and out of the life of an old friend. Which means that not every story centres on a crime or act of wrongdoing. Indeed, the title story is a brilliantly told mood piece that will deeply satisfy those who have followed Scudder on his journey through life. It is a rare moment of pure humanity in Scudder’s world and, along with moments such as MICK BALLOU LOOKS AT THE BLANK SCREEN (which has the double impact of justifying my adoration of the finale of THE SOPRANOS) serves to give the impression that Scudder is a lot more than just a PI, that his story doesn’t stop when we’re not reading about him.

Along with A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF, this collection makes 2011 a banner year for fans of Scudder (and his creator, Block). You owe it to yourself to stop whatever it is you’re doing and read this collection straight away. As a portrait of not just a man but a city that changes with the years, you’re really not going to do any better.

Russel D McLean for, 04/01/11