Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder is a most intriguing character. Like any really good character he is complex and conflicted and battling inner demons. I want to say he has an elastic sense of morality, but that is only partially true. At the heart of things he is quite a moral person, essentially one of the good guys, yet he has his flaws and shortcomings and knows how to play the game even if that means being borderline corrupt on occasion, but mostly only in superficial matters. The Sins of the Fathers is Block's first Matthew Scudder crime novel, which was published in 1976. I wanted a good mystery set in NYC ca. 1970 and I have found it in Block's novel. Once again this is a case of a book reflecting the time it was written in yet it never feels dated.
I've read that Lawrence Block is one of the best crime writers in contemporary fiction and if this book is anything to judge by, I think that's a pretty accurate statement. Block's prose is sharp and to the point, a perfect example of a good hardboiled crime novel. No ostentation just plain, good storytelling. I fell into this story so easily I couldn't put it down. It just flowed from the first sentence to the very last. No shocking twists and turns, just life in all its messy glory.
Matthew Scudder, and I believe there are about seventeen books (Block is a most prolific writer and has a number of different series with vastly different characters), ages with each book, but I am not entirely sure I can tell you much about him physically. Other than he has a weakness for bourbon in his coffee. I'm not sure what he looks like or how old he is, but he's divorced with two youngish sons (so maybe in his 30s?). He has an amicable relationship with his ex-wife and his sons adore him. He lives in a hotel in NYC and is an ex-cop having served for almost sixteen years. He's not even a private detective really, but he does work on the side. The side of what, is the question. He has a murky history in the police force--not for anything underhanded--no dirty work. Just being in the wrong place at the wrong time and innocents getting caught in the crossfire. And how do you live with innocent blood on your hands? You light a lot of candles in churches and drop in generous bills into the collection box. Atoning for sins maybe? Praying for lost souls?
" . . . I found out I didn't want to be a cop anymore. Or a husband, or a father. Or a productive member of society."
If he takes on a job, it is usually tied in with a little on the side kickback. You scratch my back and I scratch yours sort of deal. Life isn't squeaky clean and neat and neither is the NYPD it would seem. Or Matthew Scudder's way of doing things. Sometimes a friend in the Force will send a client his way, and sometimes Scudder will help them, and maybe sometimes not. And a little corruption never bothers him. A young policeman Scudder talks to/gives a little advice to tells responds that he has a lot to learn (after being told how much money you take from someone and how much you pass on to superiors).
"I had no present need to work. I don't need much money. My room rent is cheap, my day-to-day expenses low enough. Besides, I had no reason to dislike this man. I have always felt more comfortable taking money from men I dislike."
"I'm probably more expensive than one of the big agencies. They'd work for you either per diem or on an hourly basis. Plus expenses. I take a certain amount of money and pay my expenses out of it. I don't like keeping records. I also don't like writing reports, or checking in periodically when there's nothing to say for the sake of keeping a client contented."
To say Matthew Scudder is an unorthodox businessman is putting it lightly. He doesn't actually have a mystery to solve in this book, at least not in the conventional sense. There has been a murder and then a suicide. It seems all cut and dried and the police are satisfied enough to close the books on the case. But the father of the murdered girl is not satisfied. He accepts the man who killed her likely did indeed kill her, but she was living such a shady life, he wants to know what happened to her. How did his daughter come to live in NY with a man who was found covered in her blood, and making her living as a prostitute?
So Scudder goes about investigating the life of a murdered woman, asking questions of friends and family piecing together a picture of the woman and the man who murdered her, ostensibly her friend and roommate and maybe something more? But nothing is exactly as it appears, so in the end this is a story of a murder. As much a whodunnit as a whydunnit. But punishment is not meted out in the way you expect. The truth comes out, but it never exactly comes out in a way that the perpetrator is taken to court and put in jail. But there is judgement in the end. And payment and accounts squared. Not at all in a conventional way. It is a most satisfying crime novel. And a second great find when it comes to unconventional "sleuths". First Commissario Ricciardi and now Matthew Scudder. Now I have two new characters to add to my reading repertoire and I plan on following all their adventures.