The Autobiography of Matthew Scudder (An Excerpt)

By Lawrence Block

Not for the first time, I’ve been invited to write about Matthew Scudder—not to produce another slightly fictionalized rendition of one of his cases, though I’m assured such would be welcome, but to furnish a biographical report on the man himself.

I can understand why I might be singled out for such a task. Scudder has been narrator and principal character in nineteen books of mine: seventeen novels, a collection of shorter fiction, and, most recently, a novella. I might be presumed to know something about him.

But the notion of writing about Scudder, of jotting down facts and observations about the fellow, has always rankled. I’ve turned surly when interviewers ask for a physical description, or seek out ways in which his personal history is or is not similar to mine.

An interviewer may wonder about Scudder’s taste in music, or where he buys his clothes. Is he pro-choice? Does he vote? And some questions are oddly hypothetical. Has Scudder ever seen a UFO? What would he think if he did?

I turn away from those questions, even as I find myself wanting to turn away from this current assignment. Matthew Scudder has been a vital fictional presence in my life since I began writing about him in the final months of 1973. It’s now the summer of 2022, and I’m at my keyboard with him very much on my mind.

And yes, that’s very nearly half a century, and in all that time I can’t recall ever having written about Matthew Scudder. I don’t mean to be disingenuous here. The shelf holds nineteen books that might be said to constitute his ghostwritten autobiography, and it is not without reason that my name is on their spines and covers. I shaped them, I gave them dimension, I highlighted this and played down that. I feel comfortable calling them my books, and myself their author.

But don’t ask me what he’s like.

And yet the fellow who’s assigned me this task is one whose friendship I cherish, and whom I find myself reluctant to disappoint. And perhaps there’s a way for me to give him what he wants without overstepping the role I’ve played for all these years.

I’ll do what I’ve always done. I’ll step aside and let the man himself tell you as much or as little as he chooses.

• • • • •

Hard to know where to start.

With my birth, I suppose, and with the admission that my date of birth is not as you’ll find it given in at least one of the books. They’re factual renditions, or as factual as human memory and artistic requirements allow them to be, but sometimes they go a little astray. I don’t know why Lawrence Block gave me a birthday in April or May, but he did, and went on to make the point that I was a Taurus, with the perseverance or stubbornness, as you prefer, that allegedly goes with that sun sign.

I can’t deny the traits, but I am in fact a Virgo, born on September 7, 1938, in the Bronx Maternity Hospital on the Grand Concourse, the first child of Charles Lewis Scudder and Claudia Collins Scudder. I was named Matthew Collins Scudder, Collins because it was my mother’s maiden name. As far as I know, there were no Matthews in the family. I think they just liked the sound of it.

We must have been living in the Bronx at the time, but we couldn’t have stayed there very long, because we were in Richmond Hill when my brother was born at a hospital somewhere in Queens on December 4, 1941. They named him Joseph Jeremiah Scudder, and three days later the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and two days after that my brother died, either from a congenital defect or complications of childbirth. I never knew exactly what happened, but I think the birth must have been problematic because it almost killed my mother. She was in the hospital until Christmas week. Her sister-in-law took care of me. That was my Aunt Peg, who was married to my mother’s brother Walter.

I don’t remember any of this. I remember knowing about it, because I was told, but I don’t remember it. I had a brother for a little less than a week, and I never saw him.

“She was never the same after your brother’s death.” I heard that more than once from Aunt Peg, and from another aunt as well, probably Aunt Rosalie, although it could as easily have been Aunt Mary Katherine. I had a lot of aunts and uncles, most of them on my mother’s side. My father had two sisters, Charlotte, who taught third grade and never married, and Helen, who was married and living in Kansas, I think Topeka, years before I was born. I met her once at my father’s funeral. She flew in for the occasion, her first return to New York since she left, a bride fresh out of high school. I remember she homed in on me and told me childhood memories of my father, except she was drunk and they were the same two or three stories over and over.

They’re all dead, of course, all the aunts and uncles. Helen had children, and at least one of them would have been older than I, because I believe it was her pregnancy that had propelled her into an early marriage, and out of New York. I never knew the names or even the number of her children, my first cousins, and have no idea if they’re alive or dead.

And of course there were cousins on my mother’s side, quite a few of them, but I’ve long since lost track of them. I could probably chase them down if I put my mind to it. There was a radio program when I was a boy, Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons; I don’t know how keen I was, but I have had a fair amount of experience tracing people who were lost, and mostly wanted to stay that way.

These days Google makes it fairly easy. So far, though, I haven’t made an effort in that direction, and I don’t think I will. Elaine, my wife, swabbed her cheek and sent a Q-tip’s worth of epithelial cells to Ancestry.com or one of its fellows, and she’s learned a surprising amount about her ancestors on both sides, the Mardells and the Cheploves, along with being apprised periodically of some stranger bearing neither of those surnames with whom she shares a presumably significant amount of DNA.

I could send in a swab of my own. I know next to nothing about my grandparents and nothing at all of earlier generations of Scudders and Collinses—but what difference could it possibly make to know what heroes and scoundrels have nested in my family tree?

And, if I have a third or fourth cousin in Pembroke, Oregon, so what?

Or I might learn that Michael and Andrew, the sons of my first marriage, are not my only offspring. Half a century ago, both before and after my first marriage had run its course, I led an active sex life. I was drinking throughout those years, and I slept with strangers and allowed myself to assume they were on the pill.

And what I now assume is that my partners in those adventures, who drank the way I did in the bars where I encountered them, weren’t significantly more responsible than I. One of them could have carried a child of mine without knowing who’d fathered it.

Or without remembering me at all.

One hears stories. A letter, or more likely an email. “You don’t know me, but I have reason to believe you might be my father…”

I think I’ll leave my cheek unswabbed.

.

I doubt either of my parents was the same after my brother died. I’m just guessing, or perhaps inferring, because I have no memories of them before that unfortunate week.

They were good parents, I think. I was never spanked, let alone beaten, and if either of them ever raised a hand to the other I was not around to witness it. I don’t remember many arguments, either, but when I try to recall those early years I have the sense of long silences, of afternoons and evenings when the only voice one heard was coming from the radio.

“There’s good news tonight!”

That was Gabriel Heatter’s tagline on his WOR news broadcast, and I can hear the words now in memory, in that rich and hearty voice. My father never missed Heatter’s program, except when he failed to get home in time for it. I’m sure there must have been nights when the newsman didn’t utter those words, because a world war was raging, and not every day of it included good news. But Gabriel Heatter apparently liked to see the bright side, and I think my father enjoyed those four words at least as much as he cared what had happened in the world.

Sometimes he’d come home late, long after the program, which my mother may or may not have troubled to turn on. “There’s good news tonight!” he’d call out, echoing Heatter’s cadence if not his vocal tone. And sometimes he’d leave it at that, or he might share the night’s good news—a Yankees victory, most likely. Like our forces in Europe and Asia, the Yankees were a rewarding team to root for. They won a good deal more often than they lost.

I don’t know why I’m circling around this, so let me say it: He drank. On those nights when he missed Gabriel Heatter, he’d generally stayed longer than usual at whatever bar he favored at the time, but whenever he came home he smelled comfortingly of whiskey.

Comfortingly? A surprising word. Funny what a man hears himself say.

A comfort to Charlie Scudder, certainly, and I guess it was a comfort to me as well. That was his bouquet, his scent, and it meant Daddy was home.

He didn’t stagger, didn’t fall down. He might speak a little louder, but I don’t recall his ever slurring his words. No personality change, no bursts of verbal or physical violence. He’d have something to eat, if he hadn’t dined earlier, and he might get a bottle from the cupboard and pour himself a drink, and sip it while he smoked Chesterfields and listened to the radio or turned the pages of the evening paper.

He drank blended whiskey. The brands I recall all had numbers in them—Four Roses, Three Feathers. Seagram’s Seven.

We moved often, it seems to me. We lived in the Bronx when I was born, and in Queens when my brother was born and died. We were still in Richmond Hill when I went to kindergarten, but halfway through first grade we moved, I think to Ridgewood or Glendale, and I had to go to a different school. It must have been a Catholic school, I remember nuns.

We weren’t religious. My father’s people were nominally Protestant, but nobody went to church. The Collinses were a mix of Catholic and Protestant, and I suppose if they’d been living in Belfast they’d have thrown bombs at one another, but nobody took it all that seriously.

My mother’s sister Eileen was married to Norman Ross, who’d changed his surname from Rosenberg. “Jews make good husbands”—I remember hearing one of my aunts make that declaration, and I never forgot it and wondered what it meant. I eventually worked out that it meant either that they were good with money or that they stayed away from the drink. Maybe both.

I don’t know how Uncle Norman was with money, and I couldn’t tell you if he drank heavily or moderately or not at all, but he didn’t stay far enough away from the booze. He had a liquor store, and he got held up more than once, and the last person to point a gun at him pulled the trigger, and that was the end of Norman Ross, né Rosenberg.

A couple of years later Aunt Eileen remarried, again to a Jewish man. Uncle Mel’s last name was Garfinkel, so I rather doubt he’d changed it, and he had a neighborhood hardware store on Queens Boulevard. Hardware stores get robbed less often than liquor stores, and as far as I know Aunt Eileen and Uncle Mel lived happily ever after.

Look, I’m an old man. My mind’s like an old river, turning this way and that, and in no particular hurry to get where it’s going. Meandering, that’s the word for it.

.

My mother was always there, but there was always something tentative about her presence. She did all the things that she was supposed to do, she got up in the morning and fixed our breakfasts, she made beds and washed clothes and swept floors, she shopped for groceries, she put dinner on the table.

And she did all of this in near-silence. I don’t think she had any friends outside the family. If the phone rang, and it didn’t ring all that often, the caller would generally be one of her sisters with some sort of family news—somebody was sick or engaged or pregnant or dead.

If I was home I’d hear her end of the conversation. “Oh, that’s too bad. Oh, how nice. Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”

She wasn’t a drinker. She’d have a drink, at my father’s urging, if there was something to celebrate, but she wouldn’t have a second, and as often as not she’d leave her drink unfinished. And that reminds me of something I haven’t thought of in years, how I found an abandoned drink of hers and polished it off. Just once, and I couldn’t have been more than eight or nine years old, but even then I knew this was something I was not supposed to do.

But I wanted to, and no one was looking, and I drank it down. It must have been two ounces or so of what started life as whiskey and soda, but the bubbles were gone and it was mostly ice melt by the time I got my hands on it.

I liked the taste. I must have liked the idea of it, too. And the effect? I don’t know that it had any, at least that I was aware of. And I both liked and disliked the fact that I had done something wrong. No one knew I’d done it, and nobody would ever find out (and I don’t know that they’d have been all that upset if they did), but I was a good little boy, not much inclined to do what I wasn’t supposed to do.

I remember making two decisions. First, that from now on if she abandoned a drink I’d leave it where it was, or pour it unsampled down the sink. Second, that whiskey was a Good Thing, and I’d drink my fill of it when I was old enough.

My fill and then some.

.

While she wasn’t much of a drinker, my mother smoked, and I think she was a heavier smoker than he was. Whatever she was doing, she generally had a cigarette going. If she was cooking a meal or making a bed, there’d be a cigarette nearby, smoldering in an ashtray, waiting for her to reach for it. If she was sitting down and listening to the radio, there’d be a cigarette between her fingers, and after she’d crushed it out she’d soon enough light up another.

Like my father, she smoked Chesterfields. And of course my own first cigarettes were Chesterfields, taken surreptitiously from her pack. This would have been a few years after that first drink, and while I knew this too was a transgression, I don’t recall being much bothered by the fact. What did bother me was the taste. One puff was as far as I got with that first cigarette, and while I would try others over the years, and smoke some of them halfway through, I never developed either a taste for tobacco or an addiction to it.

Not so for Claudia Scudder. I never saw her actually light one cigarette from the butt of another, but unless she was eating or sleeping she generally had a cigarette going. A carton couldn’t have lasted her more than three days.

So three, four packs a day. When I was a boy a carton was two dollars, and a pack from a vending machine cost you a quarter. We never had much money, but even a heavy tobacco habit had minimal financial impact. Nobody ever had to give anything up in order to cover the cost of the next pack or the next carton.

I just checked now, I let Google save me a research trip to the corner deli, and the average cost of a pack of cigarettes in New York City is $11.96. That’s what, sixty cents a cigarette? They were a penny apiece when my mother smoked them.

Well, hell, they got her through the days, her cigarettes and her soap operas. On the radio for years, and then halfway through my second year in high school my father came home with a Philco television set, and before long she’d transferred her loyalties from mere voices and sound effects to characters she could actually see.

Progress.

It was the cigarettes that killed her, though they waited until just short of nine years after the drink killed him.

It’s a slog, remembering all of this, writing it down. I think I’ll take a break…

• • • • •

AUTHOR’S NOTE:

That’s 3000 words, very nearly 5% of the complete book. If you want to read more, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait until the book’s publication on my own 85th birthday, June 24, 2023.

FURTHER INVESTIGATION

  • 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.
Copyright (c) 1998 by Lawrence Block.

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