Wednesday, September 30, 2020

The Night and the Music: The Matthew Scudder Stories by Lawrence Block

Matthew Scudder is a creature of novels. All series characters have a length they work best in -- short novels, long novels, novelettes, short stories, drabbles. And Scudder's creator Lawrence Block has characters that work at different lengths: Bernie Rhodenbarr is made for short, frothy novels; Martin Ehrengraf for sharp short stories; and Keller, in my opinion, for novellas.

And, again, Scudder is a creature of novels -- medium-length mysteries (or thrillers, some of the time), with depth of characterization, larger casts, and room for the moral dilemmas that are most important to his stories. Scudder is an ex-cop, a product of the murky 1970s, and has a complicated relationship with honesty, sobriety, and the law -- but a very deep, central relationship with doing the right thing, which has led him down a lot of roads as an unlicensed private eye. He was created for an initial clutch of three novels -- The Sins of the FathersTime to Murder and Create, and In the Midst of Death -- and has appeared in fourteen more in the five decades since.

But Scudder also appeared in three novellas, during the initial book hiatuses of the late '70s and early '80s, and, as Block's most popular character, also popped up in shorter, slighter pieces since then.

The Night and the Music was published in 2011, around the same time as the last Scudder novel, A Drop of the Hard Stuff, to collect all of those bits of string between two covers. There's since been one Scudder novella published as a book, A Time to Scatter Stones, but I believe that's it. It came out from Telemachus Press, a self-publishing outfit. Block has since published a lot of books himself, both his old quirky backlist and some new books -- those have tended since to be more clearly published by the author, since that's a good trust signal to his audience.

Night opens with the three strongest stories -- all novelette length -- and then drops into shorter pieces, some of which Block actually calls "vignettes" in his informative afterword. All of it is in strong Block prose, all of it is interesting, all of it features Scudder. But most of it is not stories in the clearest sense: it's a record of a few things that happened with Scudder in them, and most of the time, those things include one death and the way Scudder figures out details of that death. Some of the pieces don't even have that.

But this is the rest of Scudder. If you've read the seventeen novels, this is what's left. And those three stories up front are actually really good -- though the third one, "By the Dawn's Early Light," formed the core of the novel When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, and so will likely be familiar to Scudder fans. Those three stories are also about half the book; the other eight pieces take up roughly the other hundred pages here.

If you're a Scudder fan, and didn't know this book existed, I imagine you're happy. If you're not a Scudder fan, try Nine Million Ways to Die or The Sins of the Father or When the Sacred Ginmill Closes. He is, as I've said twice before, really a creature of novels.

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