rachelmanija: (Book Fix)
rachelmanija ([personal profile] rachelmanija) wrote2009-08-25 11:52

Matthew Scudder novels, by Lawrence Block

[livejournal.com profile] tool_of_satan sent me a few Matthew Scudder novels as part of a giant package, thanks Dan, and after gobbling them down in a sitting, I ran to the library, checked out more, and read those. Then, as if I had eaten too much junk food, I felt vaguely nauseated.

When I was in high school, I enjoyed Block’s Bernie Rhodenbarr “Burglar” novels, light-as-a-bubble capers featuring a gentleman jewel thief and a lot of banter. The Matthew Scudder novels are much darker, and I think I only read one or two of those.

Scudder is an alcoholic private eye, first actively drinking and later a sober member of AA. The portrayal of addiction and the work of sobriety is convincing and thoughtful, and that and mortality are the main and best themes of the series. Block’s dialogue is smooth, stylized, and often witty, and the prose and pacing give each book that hard-to-put-down quality.

Unfortunately, after reading a bunch in a row, I became increasingly put-off by the characters, both major and minor: minor characters for being stereotypical, and major characters for being sexist, racist, and smug. I am ninety percent sure that Matt and Elaine are not meant to come across as sexist, racist, and smug, but read enough of the books in a short enough period of time and they do.

These sorts of crime novels have limited roles for characters: criminals, cops, colorful local color, victims, detectives, friends and associates of the detectives, and people who are interviewed by the detectives. But given that, there’s no reason for, say, women to only appear as hookers but never as hackers.

I read about six in a row, so these links are not exhaustive: Eight Million Ways To Die: A Matthew Scudder Mystery, Everybody Dies (Matthew Scudder Mysteries).



Every black character in every book is a criminal or former criminal. I should note that there are many white characters who were never criminals.

Every major female character is a current or former hooker, a current or former love interest of Matt’s, and/or a victim. No female character ever takes an active role in assisting an investigation.

I only recall one Latino character, a crazed machete killer. I recall two Asian-American characters, a hacker and Matt’s daughter-in-law, who never appears onstage but is mentioned approvingly by Matt so he can demonstrate that he’s not racist, unlike his ex-wife who disapproved of the marriage. These books are set in New York City, an area which is not exactly lacking in Asian-Americans and Latino/as.

His black characters often comment wryly or knowingly about racism, but always in a non-threatening way. They don’t get genuinely angry, let alone angry at Matt or his buddies, they never discuss taking political action, and they’re accepting of even blatantly racist, n-word-using people if they come from an older generation.

In a much more realistic take on the latter issue, I am reminded of the episode of Homicide (Homicide Life on the Street - The Complete Seasons 1 & 2) in which Meldrick Lewis, a thirtysomething African-American cop, walks out on an old retired white cop’s racist tirade. Falsone, a younger white cop, says, “Take it easy on him. He’s a man of his time.” Lewis retorts, “Yeah, well, I’m a man of my time.”

Block often has his black or female characters say, “I’m black/female, so I say it’s totally fine to say [racist/sexist thing.]” This logical fallacy is technically known as Actually, The White Male Author Is Saying It.

The point where I mentally hurled the entire series against the wall was when Matt’s male-fantasy girlfriend Elaine, a former hooker who is now independently wealthy and saves all her skills for Matt whom she truly loves but doesn’t mind if he has affairs with other women even though she no longer tricks because he asked her to give it up, said in what was clearly intended as a throw-away bit of witty banter, “What’s great about Indian food delivery is that you never have to go to the restaurants. Every single Indian restaurant I’ve ever gone to has at least one waiter whose last bath was in the Ganges.”



This rant could have so easily been avoided. If Block had even, for instance, thrown in a couple black cops, a tough woman or two, and avoided the "racism = wit" and the horrendous "I will make my female and black characters voice my own sexist and racist opinions" stuff, I would undoubtedly still be reading these books and have even recced them to people who like that kind of thing.

It’s too bad. In many ways Block is a very fine craftsman. I hope that the Burglar books would hold up better – I seem to recall women having more active roles in them – but I’m scared to check.

ETA: Spoilers for latest Burglar book in comments.

[identity profile] vom-marlowe.livejournal.com 2009-08-25 19:06 (UTC)(link)
Do NOT under any circumstances, pick up the latest Bernie Rhodenbarr book without reading spoilers for it. I won't say what happens, unless requested, but I was sick for a long time about it and I will, never, EVER read Block again.

[identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com 2009-08-25 19:09 (UTC)(link)
I suspect I won't either, so spill!

[identity profile] vom-marlowe.livejournal.com 2009-08-25 19:12 (UTC)(link)
As I remember it.... Bernie is burglarizing a house, and hears someone come in. He hides under the bed. It's a guy with a girl who is drugged. The guy rapes the girl on the bed, and leaves, Scott free. Later, Bernie has sex with her. He doesn't tell her anything or help her in any way.

[identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com 2009-08-25 19:12 (UTC)(link)
...THE HELL???

[identity profile] coraa.livejournal.com 2009-08-25 19:30 (UTC)(link)
Oh, how vile.

[identity profile] tool-of-satan.livejournal.com 2009-08-25 19:52 (UTC)(link)
He does actually tell her about it, later. This is of course still extremely problematic.
kate_nepveu: sleeping cat carved in brown wood (Default)

[personal profile] kate_nepveu 2009-08-26 15:10 (UTC)(link)
And neither of them seem to think this is weird or problematic or REALLY ICKY or anything!

I finished the book convinced they were aliens. Because what the _fuck_, over.

[identity profile] tool-of-satan.livejournal.com 2009-08-26 15:18 (UTC)(link)
Yeah, I don't know what Block was thinking. Well, I can guess what he was thinking, which is that he wanted to keep the tone light, as he always does in this series. But that is incompatible with having one of his characters raped.
kate_nepveu: sleeping cat carved in brown wood (Default)

[personal profile] kate_nepveu 2009-08-26 15:19 (UTC)(link)
Or he thinks it isn't and OH LAWRENCE BLOCK NO.

[identity profile] tool-of-satan.livejournal.com 2009-08-26 15:23 (UTC)(link)
I'd like to think he is smarter than that, but I have little evidence to support that theory, sadly.

[identity profile] a2zmom.livejournal.com 2009-08-25 20:10 (UTC)(link)
That is horrifying.

My husband used to read Block a long time ago, but not for many years. If this is what he has descended to, whi would want read it?

[identity profile] rivkat.livejournal.com 2009-08-25 19:51 (UTC)(link)
"This logical fallacy is technically known as Actually, The White Male Author Is Saying It."

Beautifully put, and applicable in a lot more places than most people will admit.

[identity profile] tool-of-satan.livejournal.com 2009-08-25 19:57 (UTC)(link)
The Burglar books are somewhat better - there is a major female character after the first two - but still pretty light on POC characters (I am trying hard and can only think of two of any significance). As I recall they mostly avoid actually stepping in things aside from the last one, as noted.

[identity profile] spectralbovine.livejournal.com 2009-08-25 20:00 (UTC)(link)
“What’s great about Indian food delivery is that you never have to go to the restaurants. Every single Indian restaurant I’ve ever gone to has at least one waiter whose last bath was in the Ganges.”
...The fuck? I...have never been to one of those Indian restaurants, apparently. Maybe all the Indian restaurants she went to were in India.

[identity profile] madam-silvertip.livejournal.com 2009-08-25 20:29 (UTC)(link)
Have been wary of Block since he fluffed writing a teenaged girl geek so thoroughly in "Ariel"; she used slang from the 1930s. It was as you say a technically very well-done novel. I don't remember what else I have read of Block except that I thought they were well-written, but this was a while ago and it doesn't sound as if I could stomach any or all of these entries.

Another Block is Barbara Block, whose Robin Light series of mysteries are at times weakly executed but feature a very engaging heroine and a multiracial inner-city cast portrayed with at least a modicum of realism and sensitivity. (As I remember them; I haven't read any in a couple of years.) AND, they're set in a pet store, and are not cozy at all. Recommended.

[identity profile] faithhopetricks.livejournal.com 2009-08-26 07:52 (UTC)(link)
Unfortunately, after reading a bunch in a row, I became increasingly put-off by the characters, both major and minor: minor characters for being stereotypical, and major characters for being sexist, racist, and smug. I am ninety percent sure that Matt and Elaine are not meant to come across as sexist, racist, and smug, but read enough of the books in a short enough period of time and they do.

DUDE. I JUST READ three Scudder books in a row. The first, Out on the Cutting Edge, was fanfuckingtastic. The next, Ticket to the Boneyard, was ehhh okay. The third, A Long Line of Dead Men, was just awful. I can't stand Elaine and I can't stand his young African-American 'assistant,' TJ (?) either. And yeah, while I didn't read anything as horrible as that last-bath-Ganges comment, there were enough little racist moments here and there that I was sourly put off in general. (I really liked Mickey Ballou and wanted a series about _him._)

I will say, as a recovering alcoholic, the AA stuff is very well-done and makes me think Block probably is a Friend of Bill, not that it's really any of my business. Lots of New York is also v well-described. Otherwise, feh, no good.

[identity profile] tool-of-satan.livejournal.com 2009-08-26 15:21 (UTC)(link)
Ballou is a good character but I feel compelled to note that he and all his close associates are stone racists... there's a scene in one of the books where an African-American guy walks into Grogan's which makes this pretty clear (intentionally so on Block's part in this particular case).

[identity profile] faithhopetricks.livejournal.com 2009-08-26 15:28 (UTC)(link)
....aww crap, there wasn't anything like that in the three books I read....damn. That's really fucking disappointing.

[identity profile] f4f3.livejournal.com 2009-08-27 15:17 (UTC)(link)
He is also a career criminal and multiple murderer. Which bothers me some...

[identity profile] tool-of-satan.livejournal.com 2009-08-27 16:36 (UTC)(link)
This is true.

[identity profile] lady-ganesh.livejournal.com 2009-08-26 23:46 (UTC)(link)
I will not kid you, I spent several seconds being horrified I ever liked Block's work and then remembered I always got his name mixed up with Robert Bloch. I feel much better now.