Created by Lawrence Block
Loads of fictional private eyes drink oceans of booze. Some become invincible, some become silly, some become virtual Einsteins of deduction.
MATT SCUDDER had no such luck. He drank and became an alcoholic.
He used to be one of New York’s Finest, a decent-enough detective, honest enough to get by, although he certainly wasn’t a saint. He was also a family man, with a wife and kids out on Long Island. But it all came tumbling down when, off-duty, he tried to stop a holdup. A stray bullet in the ensuing shootout took the life of a little girl, and Matt soon found himself divorced and jobless. He lived in a Manhattan hotel and took on the occasional job, doing “favors for friends,” slowly drinking his way into the grave, inexpicibly leaving a tenth of his proceeds in church collection boxes “I didn’t say any prayers. I never do,” he admits in A Stab in the Dark).
But mostly, it seemed, he sat in Armstrong’s, a local bar, “maintenance” drinking and reading the day’s atrocities in the papers. The series appeared to have come to a powerful, emotion-charged climax, with the classic, Shamus-winning Eight Million Ways To Die (1982), when Matt finally realized he was an alcoholic.
Yet, a few years later, after having told everyone who would listen that the Scudder series was stick-a-fork-in-it over and done with, Block brought him back in a short story “By the Dawn’s Early Light,” published in Playboy, which also nabbed a Shamus. It was later expanded and adpted into the novel When the Sacred Ginmill Closes. Since then the series has evolved into some sort of American classic of crime fiction, as Matt, now a recovering alcoholic, gradually comes to terms with his life. In later books, he’s even become licensed, and he’s been thinking of actually getting married.
There are some truly great characters in this series, including reformed call girl turned art dealer and love interest (and lately, wife) Elaine; TJ, the chameleon-like street-savvy black kid who’s slowly becoming Matt’s full-time assistant, and perhaps most notably Mick Ballou, the unrepentant Irish mobster and bar owner who’s become Matt’s best friend.
But the most finely-etched character may be New York itself. The Scudder series, with its sometimes harsh but always vivdly rendered New York backdrop, etched in Block’s bittersweet prose, isn’t for the mild. But it’s not just a string of progressively bleaker nightmares either. As one character puts it in A Dance at the Slaughterhouse, “Drunk or sober, it will break your heart.” He wasn’t referring to the series, but he might as well have been.
There was even a film made of Eight Million Ways To Die, although the result might drive you to drink. Except for the usual great performance by Jeff Bridges in the lead and a nerve-wracking showdown in a warehouse, it’s an embarrassing mess, poorly-conceived, poorly-written and poor-executed, made all the more amazing by some of the talent involved. Scudder’s dark, claustrophobic buttoned-down world of Manhattan bars and gin mills is Californicated up, leaving us with drippy sentimental sun-shiney flashbacks and Hallmark psychobabble (“Do you consider yourself a happy person?” my ass!), a couple in love actually walking hand in hand on the beach and it’s all just way, way too bright and shiny and up with people. It’s a wonder screenwriter Oliver Stone ever worked again after this mess. The film wasn’t even released on DVD in the U.S. for years and years.
Far more faithful to its source, was theadaptation of A Walk Among the Tombstones, starring Liam Neeson, directed by Scott Frank and set to premiere in September 2014, will be a little more satisfying.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lawrence Block is a fan favorite and a writer’s writer. As well as Scudder, he’s been responsible for the Chip Harrison, Evan Tanner and Bernie Rhodenbarr mystery series. But, in my humble opinion, it’s the Scudder series where he really shines. Eight Million Ways To Die is simply one of the best PI novels of all time, and Everybody Dies (1998) ain’t too shabby either.
But why take chances? Read them all.
- “She was a way to get out, and I was a person who would always want to get out. No matter how comfortable my life was, no matter how well suited I was to it, and it to me, I would always want to slip away and hide for a while.”
— Matt in Everybody Dies reminisces about a woman he once had an affair with.
- “Any discussion of addiction and recovery in crime fiction must start with Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder. ”
— Casey Barrett in Reckoning with Addiction in Crime Fiction (August 2019, CrimeReads)
- “My nominee for that slot (most overrated fictional private eye) would be a fellow named Matthew Scudder, the creation of a writer who shall remain, uh, nameless. I’ll tell you, if I were going to hire a private eye, Scudder’s the last one I’d pick. He’s either drunk or going to AA meetings, which leaves him with precious little time for work. His girlfriend’s a hooker, and his best buddy is a career criminal and multiple murderer. And he does weird things: In one book he clears his client of a murder the man really did commit, then frames him for one he didn’t have anything to do with. Who in his right mind would have anything to do with a guy like that?”
- — Lawrence Block in the May/June 200 issue of American Heritage, writing about “The Most Overrated and Underrated Fictional Private Eyes.” As for “The Most Underrated,” that someone else who shall remain, uh,Nameless.
- “The more I read Matt Scudder novels, the more I see Don Johnson in the part. I agree that Harrison Ford would do a fine job, but I think Johnson could look and feel the part more. Most people who watch Nash Bridges would disagree with me, but based on his performance in Dead Bang (which is a lousy movie, truth be told), he plays a world-weary cop, and he does it damn well.”
— Bryan Schingle
- See more Casting Couch.
- The Sins of the Fathers (1976) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Time To Murder And Create (1977; written second but published third) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- In The Midst Of Death (1976; written third but published second) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- A Stab in the Dark (1981) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Eight Million Ways to Die (1982) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- When the Sacred Ginmill Closes (1986) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Out on the Cutting Edge (1989) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- A Ticket to the Boneyard (1990) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- A Dance at the Slaughterhouse (1991) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- A Walk Among the Tombstones (1992) | Buy the book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- The Devil Knows You’re Dead (1993) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- A Long Line of Dead Men (1994) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Even the Wicked (1997) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Everybody Dies (1998) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Hope To Die (2001) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- All the Flowers are Dying (2005) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- A Drop of the Hard Stuff (2011) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- The Autobiography of Matthew Scudder (2023) | Buy the book | Kindle it!
SHORT STORIES & NOVELLAS
- “Out the Window” (September 1977, AHMM)
- “A Candle for the Bag Lady” (November 1977, AHMM; aka “Like a Lamb to the Slaughter”)
- “By the Dawn’s Early Light” (August 1984, Playboy; 1984, The Eyes Have It)
- “Batman’s Helpers” (1990, Playboy; also 1990, Justice for Hire) | Kindle it!
- “The Merciful Angel of Death” (1993, The New Mystery) | Kindle it!
- “Looking for David” (February 1998, EQMM) | Kindle it!
- “Let’s Get Lost” (September/October 2000, EQMM) | Kindle it!
- “The Night and the Music” (2002, Enough Rope)
- “A Moment of Wrong Thinking” (April 2002, EQMM) | Kindle it!
- “Mick Ballou Looks at the Blank Screen” (2011, The Night and the Music)
- “One Last Night at Grogans” (2011, The Night and the Music)
- “A Time to Scatter Stones” (2019) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- The Night and the Music (2011) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- The Night and the Music (2021) | Buy this book
New, expanded collector’s edition, now including “A Time to Scatter Stones.” A signed and numbered limited edition is also available.
- EIGHT MILLION WAYS TO DIE | Buy this video | Buy the DVD
(1986, Producer Sales Organisation)
Based on the novel by Lawrence Block
Screenplay by Oliver Stone and David Lee Henry
Directed by Hal Ashby
Produced by Steve Roth
Starring Jeff Bridges as MATT SCUDDER
Also starring Rosanne Arquette, Andy Garcia, Randy Brooks
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
- A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES | Buy on DVD | Buy on Blu-Ray | Watch it now!
Premiere: September 19, 2014
Based on the novel by Lawrence Block
Screenplay by Scott Frank
Directed by Scott Frank
Starring Liam Neeson as MATT SCUDDER
Also starring Boyd Holbrook, Dan Stevens, Whitney Able, Marina Squerciati
- EIGHT MILLION WAYS TO DIE | Buy the book | Kindle it! | Read the TD review
Based on the novel by Lawrence Block
Adapted & illustrated by John Snyder III
- Lawrence Block.com
The official site, irreverent as hell, and fun as all git out, full of vital info about the author, his books, his short stories, his newsletter, his upcoming projects, his seemingly endless book tour and everything else. And you can also buy autographed copies here (credit cards gleefully accepted). Although, you know what they say–“the rare Block is the unsigned copy.”
- 8 Million Ways to Die (1986): An Autopsy of the Great L.A. Noir That Never Was
Sam Wiebe, cinematic coroner, makes the big Y cut. The conclusion? “A fucking mess.” (October 2019, Bright Lights Film Journal)
- “The Autobiography of Matthew Scudder”
An excerpt from the novel.
- Never Can Say Goodbye
I wanted to interview Matt Scudder in June 2023 about his new autobiography for Mystery Scene, but he wasn’t available. Had to settle for Lawrence Block.
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.