Review: Even the Wicked

Even the Wicked
Even the Wicked by Lawrence Block
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I went straight from Scudder 12 and into Scudder 13, and didn’t even pause long enough to finish my review of the former. Not because I was so excited or compelled. More I didn’t want to break my reading momentum. That’s faint praise, but I don’t mean it to be: if I’m about to complain about this book, it’s always with the understanding that Block is a damned fine writer and I’ll read pretty much anything he’s written.

That said, there’s not a lot in this book for the hard-core mystery fan. I’m going to spoil a few things here, but if you’ve been reading these Scudder novels, I won’t tell you anything you haven’t figured out on your own, and if you haven’t read these novels, what the hell are you doing reading a review of the thirteenth book in a 17 volume series.

When the main character goes up to the villain and says “You did it,” and the villain replies “You’re right, so let’s walk to the police station,” what you don’t have is any kind of thriller. And when it happens twice in the same book, with two different bad guys guilty of two different crimes, you barely even have a mystery novel, do you. Matt’s done this before. He pounds the pavement and talks to everybody and visits all the scenes and chews on some random thoughts and figures it out. The end. If this were a TV show you’d expect the cinematographer got more money than the writers.

You know what I mean? It’s all about mood, and maybe character, but we’ve known Matt for, what, a little over 20 years now? (Or three months, which is how long it’s been since I started Scudder #1.) So “character” here isn’t even all that… well, “novel,” anymore.

A locked room mystery, letters from the killer to the newspaper, vigilante justice for a child rapist… there’s bits and pieces her to draw your attention- but what ends up holding it is just decent writing, a complacent mood, and a nice little Christmas-day denouement to choke you up for a half second before moving on to book 14. Which I’m about to do.

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Review: A Long Line of Dead Men

A Long Line of Dead Men
A Long Line of Dead Men by Lawrence Block
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Book 12 of 17 in the Matthew Scudder series. But let’s be clear: more like book number 4. I mean, the first three could have been easily re-written with different main characters, since the drunk ex-cop private-eye thing’s basically its own genre. And the next few books were more about Scudder’s alcoholism than anything else. But Out on The Cutting Edge brought in some characters that have more or less stuck around, and Matt’s been a recovering alcoholic longer (in terms of pages spent at AA meetings) than he was a drunk.

That said, Block’s still using these books to bring up ideas that are a little larger than “whodunnit.” Matt gets to compare himself to his clients a little more thoroughly; instead of investigating the months-old murder of a prostitute than no one cares about, he’s looking into the serial execution of a club of good-ol’-boys. Guys who, if not exactly like Matthew himself, are at least close enough to give him just a little sense of mid-life crisis.

A Scudder-style mid-life crisis that is. Instead of finding a side-piece and buying a flash car, he gives up the side piece and joins a men’s club. One that meets only once a year, for no other reason than to see who’s still alive. A bunch of middle-aged men shaking hands with their older selves. Sort of.

At any rate, it’s a mystery novel, and Scudder solves the crime, but instead of wrapping things up in hard-boiled fashion like he used to, the ending is kind of meh. I mean, Matt used to shrug at morality, keeping things simple. But in this one, he’s trying to have his cake and eat it too. And since it all works out (I guess, I don’t know if it’s going to come back in one of the next five books) I guess that means it’s the writer who’s trying to have it both ways. Not very satisfying for me as a reader, but as an aging man myself, I guess I understand.

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Review: Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt

Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt
Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt by Michael Lewis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Normally I write these “reviews” the day of or after having finished the book. It’s been a few weeks since I finished Flash Boys. I don’t know what that says. This book made me angry, and it scared me, and I am very glad i read it, and I’m feeling extremely frustrated by its revelations.

Nutshell: people with fast computers can snipe stock trades before legitimate buyers get a chance to make their purchases. This drives up stock prices, drains the economy of billions of dollars a year, and contributes zero value.

And look, I’m not some kind of economic philosopher or crusader or whatever you want to call people who get mad at folks for making money. I’m all for people making money. I don’t much like that the rich have installed system that keep them rich at the cost of keeping poor people poor, but that’s not what this is about. This about people using loopholes and tricks to siphon money off of regular commerce. This isn’t capitalism; it’s cancer.

That’s where my head is at, having read this book. For review purposes: Once again, Michael Lewis tells a story that’s more evocative for the people in it, and offering up enough repeated exposition to get the message across and educate the reader.

I said as much about The Big Short: he repeats himself a lot in these books about Wall Street vampires, but he has to. A story that can be be boiled down to a long Wikipedia article or a series of newspaper columns has more flesh and more impact with a wordsmith like Lewis. I described his writing to a friend recently thus: he writes about sports like money journalist and he writes about money like a sports writer.

But let’s be clear. These things that these Wall Street people are pulling off– this isn’t Monday Night Football. This wanton, destructive robbery.

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Review: What Alice Forgot

What Alice Forgot
What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Wife listened to the audiobook version of this, and since she her lifestyle doesn’t let her read very many books, I read it too so we could discuss. So this review is like my pre-discussion notes list. Or something. I’m struggling here for something to say that doesn’t come across as patronizing.

For example: Modern Mom Lit. It’s the latest genre, right? Power women struggling to balance their careers with their feelings. And by “career” I mean “raising kids” because we have embraced this idea that being a mother is a full time job. It absolutely is, and we all know that one’s career can sometimes suck the soul right out of one’s body.

This novel is told in three voices, our four of you want to be exacting about. There’s Alice’s sister, writing in a journal to her therapist, struggling with IVF. (If you didn’t know, IVF is a very hot topic in Modern Mom Lit. It’s so pervasive, it’s almost a trope.) There’s Alice’s grandmother, writing letters to the fiancee who died two week before they were about to get married. And both of these talk about Alice, but mostly they talk about themselves. I guess that means they’re foils for Alice.

And then there’s Alice herself, who gets a bump on her head and loses ten years of memories. This brings back young Alice, offering her point of view, and sometimes her memories speak up too, still another point of view. What Alice forgot? Herself, obviously.

Which means the novel is more or less about a woman discovering, through loss (irony! (I told you I’d be patronizing)) that taking control of her life has made her miserable. That’s the Modern Mom Lit theme. Turn being mom in a job and you won’t be yourself anymore. Which means you won’t even be a mom anymore. You’ll just be the woman in charge. (Yeah, yeah, I’m mansplaining the heck out of this thing. I apologize.)

There were times when I was very frustrated with how some of the characters were behaving in this book, reminding me of Jonathan Franzens The Corrections– a novel full of people I couldn’t stand. Except for young Alice. Her I liked. I’m glad she remembered who she was, eventually.

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Review: The Devil Knows You’re Dead

The Devil Knows You're Dead
The Devil Knows You’re Dead by Lawrence Block
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

My least favorite, so far, of the Scudders.

Now, how should we do this, talk about the bad, first, close with the good? Or get the good over with since the whole point of writing bloggy “reviews” is to reflect… and let’s face it, I want to get the reflection done and move on to what I hope is a better next book in the series.

Fine, the latter. Still the same Block, delivering those sentences, those characters, that New York City. (Hey, reviewer, damn with faint praise much?)

I haven’t read many romance novels, so I’m going at this from a citizen-of-culture perspective, replete with having gorged on tropes and memes. The Devil Knows You’re Dead was less mystery, and more what a romance would be like if it was written for people who read gumshoe pulp.

There were two chief sins in this, the 11th Matthew Scudder mystery. One was Block’s sin of tossing in a convenient deus ex machina to “solve” the crime. That sin is not forgivable. I’m trying to forgive it, though, which is why I’m calling this a romance and not a detective story. The guy who gets killed and the effort to solve the crime are really not the point, I guess. And one could say that they’re never the point, that these Scudder books are all about one man’s existential journey. But come on. All that dirt dug up on the victim, and none of it means a thing.

The other sin is forgivable: Matthew cheats on his girlfriend. Not that I think cheating is okay. But this is a romance novel, and we’re supposed to see Matt struggle not with alcoholism, or angst, but instead struggle with being in love. So I get why it’s there. I don’t like it, but I get it.

Looking back over the last few Scudder novels, they seemed to be getting dirtier and nastier. But not quite grittier, which is what pulp is all about, and this book wasn’t dirty or nasty at all. I hesitate to wonder what the next few novels will be like, because, as much as I didn’t like this one much, I still liked the people in it. And I have this fear that Block is going to have to up the ante to recover from The Devil Knows You’re Dead. I’m not looking forward to it.

Except, you know. Of course I am.

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Review: A Walk Among the Tombstones

A Walk Among the Tombstones
A Walk Among the Tombstones by Lawrence Block
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It does.

That won’t have made any sense unless you read my review of the previous Scudder novel, A Dance at the Slaughterhouse. But don’t worry, I’ll explain it to you: I ended by saying “we’ll just have to see if the next book gets nastier, dances faster.”

There have been milestones in this series of books, some of them obvious, some of them more like mood changes or shifts in tone. The obvious one was when Matt stopped drinking and starting going to AA. And then there was the time he decided to kill a man. And here, we’ve hit another one. They’re coming more frequently, these shifts. Almost one per book– we’re well out of the formula that paced us though Matt’s early novels.

Which is not to say we still don’t have violence against women, cases with no clues that Scudder somehow pursues anyway– it’s just that now the violence is varied and Matt’s resourcefulness is as much other people as it is his own doggedness. TJ is back, Matt’s girlfriend plays a part- and the people who don’t help? Block shuffles them out of the picture, out of the country. These Scudder novels, as they get bloodier, are getting tidier too.

I say that, but then then hacking scene in the hotel room went on longer than I thought was necessary, and I don’t know that I needed the end with him and his girlfriend playing Gift of the Magi (they’re words, not mine).

But that’s okay, I guess. Matthew Scudder is becoming a human being, not just a detective novel trope. And it only took ten novels.

Still seven to go.

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