[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.
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