January 28, 2003

The Sins of the Fathers, by Lawrence Block

After re-reading the first book in John D. MacDonald's much touted Travis McGee series and finding the sex and violence there-in seriously uncongenial, I found myself wondering why I enjoy Lawrence Block's equally gritty Matthew Scudder series. And so I took the first book in the series from the shelf, and re-read it. It's by no means the best in the series--in fact, I'd put it near the bottom--and yet I still liked it better than The Deep Blue Good-By.

This is surprising, as the two series have a lot in common. Scudder, like McGee, works as little as possible. He's not a licensed detective; but sometimes "friends" ask him to find something out, and sometimes they give him "presents" of money in return. Scudder, unlike McGee, doesn't think of himself as any kind of knight errant; in fact, he's an ex-cop, an alcoholic, and not a very nice guy. He's not above being violent when it suits him, and when he was a cop it suited him to take money when it was handed to him.

So why do I like Scudder better than McGee? Upon reflection, I think that there are several reasons. First of all, McGee judges everybody he meets, and often unfavorably. You sense that he feels superior to almost all of them, even when he's using them. Scudder judges very few people, and doesn't feel superior to many; in fact, he rarely speaks of himself. It makes Scudder easier company. Second, Scudder engages in straightforward investigation; McGee is always about recovering property. That could be extremely interesting--every novel a scam novel, and I do enjoy a good scam. But instead of retrieving the loot with cleverness and skill and vanishing into the night, it always seems to come down to a violent confrontation. Sometimes the Scudder novels end that way, but not necessarily.

And finally, I guess, Scudder grows during the series. He starts out as an alcoholic on the edge of losing it completely, and as the books go on he gets sober, he gets married, and eventually (if I recall correctly) he even gets a real P.I.'s license.

And maybe Block is simply a better storyteller than MacDonald. I dunno.

Posted by Will Duquette at January 28, 2003 05:38 PM