Beginning in 1976, prolific author Lawrence Block launched a 17-book series starring former New York City detective Matthew Scudder. The series provoked two movie adaptations – Eight Million Ways to Die (1986) and A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014). Despite being the second series installment published - one year before Time to Murder and Create (1977) - Block considers In the Midst of Death (1976) the series' third entry. After enjoying the prior novels, I was anxious to return to the dark streets of Hell's Kitchen again.
In the Midst of Death provides a slight shift in the murder mystery formula. In it, Scudder is asked to do a favor for $2,500. But, unlike the prior novels, this one isn't setup as a murder case right away. Instead, a NYPD cop named Jerry Broadfield has been accused of extorting money from a prostitute. When he asks Scudder for help, Broadfield explains that he was in the middle of working with the city on exposing the department's corruption. Broadfield, and Scudder by proxy, believes that the extortion charges are an attempt to silence him. Scudder is skeptical to side with Broadfield, or do the favor, fearing that the truth isn't entirely clear. Later, when the prostitute is found murdered in Broadfield's apartment, Scudder's investigation becomes way more complicated.
Block's dark portrait of Scudder is one of the many enjoyable facets of this series. With In the Midst of Death, Scudder strains at the ties that bind – his former life with the NYPD and the remaining responsibility that he feels he owes the brotherhood. Broadfield's exposure of the department and his fraternity of peers, put Scudder on a balance beam of ethical repercussions. Broadfield's push to clean up the corruption and Scudder's protective nature of the business and its inner sanctum – despite how corrupt it might be. The author also weaves in a romantic fling with Broadfield's wife in a brilliant parallel of what Scudder experienced with his former wife – dissatisfied family, neglected marriage, disposable fatherhood. Scudder knows where the Broadfields are headed, but knows he can't save their marriage anymore than he could save his own.
In the Midst of Death is another gripping, extremely enjoyable installment in the series. Lawrence Block is an incredible storyteller and the book's last sentence left me reeling. Some authors strive their whole lives to leave readers with a lasting impact. For Block, it's a common occurrence.
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