Monday, June 2, 2014

The Devil Knows You're Dead

Now and then I'd needed a gun, and he'd provided one without question, and refused to take any money for it. Sitting in his office, talking on the phone with the old-fashioned rotary dial, I'd looked over at the safe and figured I'd get the gun from Mick.

He'd have furnished it with no questions asked. But now I'd have to get it from somewhere else.

Because now he would know what I wanted it for. He might provide it, but my asking for it would be an abuse of our friendship. And that is something I take seriously. Like sobriety, or suicide.

The Devil Knows Your Dead
-Lawrence Block

I started the Scudder Week on a Friday. I did this because I hadn't really thought about it. If you're going to do a week, start it on the Monday for God' sake. But then, Friday to Thursday is seven days.

I decided to do a Scudder week because I was reading him at the moment, and because I'd seen the trailer just out for the film, but also because I'd had a conversation about him recently. Specifically: his titles are shit.

Or so is the opinion of someone who's opinion on matters crime and PI is worth noting, because he's a published noir PI author himself. He loves Block as a writer and in fact, as a lecturer, annually gives a lecture deconstructing noir/mystery novels based on a Scudder title as the perfect exemplar of the form he himself writes. Still, he reckons all the Scudder titles are shit. To be honest, Devil Knows You're Dead is okay, but most of them are pretty bad. A Walk Among the Tombstones? Sounds like a western, and not a very original one. A Ticket to the Boneyard and A Dance at the Slaughterhouse are rubbish. So's A Stab in the Dark.

Mr Block himself blogged recently about the rhythm of the titles, and it's true. Blah (blah) di-di blah (blah). Each one sounds distinctly like a Scudder title.It doesn't make them individually good though. I suppose there is the problem of writing as many books as Mr Block has. It's fine as a young writer to come up with three or four great titles that will define your ouvre, but coming up with thirty more could be tricky.

When the Sacred Ginmill Closes is good. It's taken from a song.

Eight Million Ways to Die, however, is brilliant. Referencing the population of New York, the book in which his own alcoloholism is dealt with head on while also investigating murder is perfectly titled. It's very Scudder - bleak, philosophical, raising more questions than answers. In the books, Scudder doesn't answer many questions. Sometimes the who, how and small why of the murder, but never the big Why. There's another quote in The Devil Knows You're Dead where a woman says the murder feels wrong on a cosmic level, that the victim wasn't supposed to die like that, and therefore 'we're all in danger'. In most of the cases he deals with, Scudder seems to feel that something is basically wrong with the universe. He does his little bit to put it right, and he knows he makes sod all difference in the end. But he still does it, and everybody still dies and that's what the title means: eight million people in his beloved New York is just eight million deaths happening now, or waiting to happen, but unavoidable and unexplainable, each in their own way. He can solve the particulars of one, but never the reason of many, including his own. Managing alcoholism through the rest of the Scudder titles is as important to him as solving a tiny (murderous) piece of the puzzle of life. It's all he can control, so he must but the title illustrates that control is an illusion. So is safety. We are all dying right now despite all his best efforts. In encapsulating so perfectly such a great, dark and bleak yet persistant character, Eight Million Ways to Die is one of my all time favourite book titles.

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