Lawrence Block's most prolific and successful series character is Matthew Scudder. Throughout a 43-year span, the author wrote 17 novels, a short-story collection and a novella about the alcoholic ex-New York City detective. Many fans speculate that the Scudder novels are reflective of Block's own past struggles with alcohol. In Writer's Digest, Block wrote that when he created Scudder, "I let him hang out in the same saloon where I spent a great deal of my own time. I was drinking pretty heavily around that time, and I made him a pretty heavy drinker, too. I drank whiskey, sometimes mixing it with coffee. So did Scudder."
The series debuted in 1976 with the successful novel “The Sins of the Fathers.” In the book's opening pages, we find Scudder as a rather tortured soul bearing life's deep scars and the weight of a burdensome guilt. An alcoholic divorcee, the ex-New York City detective now lives as a recluse in the low-rent section of Hell's Kitchen. Scudder's fall from grace occurred when his bullet, intended for a fleeing criminal, went astray and killed a young girl. After leaving his family and career, Scudder now accepts jobs, and referrals from his former Lieutenant, as an unlicensed private investigator.
In a coffee shop in Midtown, Scudder meets with the father of a recently slain young woman. He asks Scudder to look further into his daughter's murder despite the open and shut appearance of the case. The woman was shredded with a straight razor by her male roommate. After the murder, the man was found wandering the street half-naked, covered in blood and speaking in gibberish about raping and murdering his own mother. After his arrest, the man committed suicide in his cell.
Speculating that there is a clear culprit exposed, Scudder hesitantly accepts the job and promises to do a thorough examination of the evidence and report his findings to the woman's father. Block then pairs the reader with Scudder's investigation, structuring this 180-page novel into a familiar police procedural. We become spectators as witnesses, suspects and motives are inspected. As the plot thickens, the narrative expands into psychological suspense that propels the procedural process into an exciting murder mystery.
“The Sins of the Fathers” represents a transition between the wild 1960s crime noir into the more graphic and intense 1970s crime-fiction market. Lawrence Block captures America's moral erosion, the tearing down of the family structure and the wholesome ideals that came before it. Here, the author profiles the murderer as a homosexual necrophiliac with mother figure fascinations. Perhaps I'm pulling the wrong thread, but Block's deeper analysis of religion, guilt, family relations and youth are abstract, yet on-point for what was ultimately the new normal of the 70s.
With this series debut, Block has created a worthy, yet flawed protagonist who will compel readers to delve more and more into the series. While not a hard-hitting action formula, Scudder's tenacity and grim approach is more than enough to keep readers invested in Block's storytelling. This is a sold first step in what will become one of crime-fiction's most treasured series titles from a master of the genre.
The discussion of the novel was featured on the Paperback Warrior Podcast on July 8th, 2019 (LINK).
Buy a copy of this novel HERE