Monday, March 18, 2019

Time to Murder and Create by Lawrence Block

Time to Murder and Create published 1977 is book two in Lawrence Block's bestselling and critically acclaimed Matthew Scudder mystery series.  There are a total of eighteen novels in this series, all of which are narrated by Matthew Scudder.  He's the ex cop turned private investigator who when he's not working on a case can be found nursing his troubles in bars around Manhattan.  In lesser hands Scudder might have come off as a hard-boiled caricature but Lawrence Block is too good a writer for that.  I knew from book one, Sins of the Father, that Scudder was a character worth following.

And so when Time to Murder and Create begins we are in NYC and it's the 1970's. The crime rate is high, people are on edge.  It's a world before 9/11, cell phones, the internet, texting etc and Scudder is in his favorite watering hole, Armstrong's, waiting to meet a prospective client, Jacob, the Spinner, Jablon.  The Spinner back when Scudder knew him from his time on the police force was a small time crook and informer but Scudder hasn't seen him in years and things have changed:

"When a man who side-steps through life by keeping his ears open suddenly turns up wearing a three-hundred dollar suit, it's not hard to figure out how he got it.  After a lifetime of selling information, the Spinner had come up with something too good to sell.  Instead of peddling information, he had turned to peddling silence.  Blackmailers are richer than stool pigeons, because their commodity is not a one-time thing; they can rent it out to the same person over and over for a lifetime.  The only problem is that their lifetimes tend to shrink.  The Spinner became a bad actuarial risk the day he got successful".

The Spinner tells Matthew Scudder that he has been blackmailing three people and one of these three is trying to kill him.  The Spinner hands Matthew Scudder an envelope with compromising photos of all three.  He trusts that if he winds up dead, Scudder will find out a) who killed him and b) destroy the pictures of the other two who as the Spinner sees it played it straight with him and deserve to be let off the hook once he's gone.  As to why Matthew Scudder would take a case like this, the Spinner explains it as follows:

"Why I think you'll follow through is something I noticed about you a long time ago, namely that you happen to think there is a difference between murder and other crimes.  I am the same.  I have done bad things all my life but never killed anybody and I never would".

This is true.  Matthew Scudder is not a judgemental man but he draws the line at murder.  Some things you don't get to get away with and murder is at the top of that list for Scudder and so he decides to take the case.

As the novels in this series progress through the 1980's, 1990's, 2000's, Matthew Scudder will change.  He gives up the booze, finds love and becomes more at peace with himself, all while retaining his wit and cynical view of human nature.  An added bonus is that NYC changes along with Scudder so that the 1970's New York when these novels began is very different from the NYC that one encounters in Block's most recent addition to the series published in January of this year where Matthew Scudder decides to come out of retirement to take on one last case.

In the world of mystery and crime fiction Lawrence Block is a legend.  He has been compared by fellow writers and critics to the great Dashiell Hammett and having read both authors I can agree.   My favorite Block novel is The Girl With the Long Green Heart published 1965 but his Matthew Scudder series is his most popular and so if you have never read Lawrence Block that is also a very fine place to begin.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

There are always going to be writers that we never get around to reading and for me, until recently, Barbara Pym fell into that category.  I knew she was a mid-20th century British novelist.  I assumed she wrote well but my desire to read her never materialized.  But it turns out many of my favorite bloggers are Barbara Pym fans and I value their judgement and so for the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge - choose a classic by a woman author, I chose Excellent Women by Barbara Pym published 1952.  It's one of the best books I have read in some time.

Excellent Women is set in London in the early 1950's.  The first person narrator and protagonist is Mildred Lathbury, a spinster in her early 30's, which is how she defines herself.  Mildred's social life revolves around St Mary's Church.  She is good friends with Father Julian Malory and his sister Winifred and when Mildred is not volunteering or attending services at St Mary's she works part time for an agency that helps elderly ladies who have fallen on hard times.

Mildred is an "excellent woman".  As described in the novel excellent women are single women who fill their lives volunteering and offering a sympathetic ear and a cup of tea when friends and neighbors come calling with problems.  Excellent women are seen as a bit odd and to be pitied by their friends due to their lack of family ties and no one is more aware of this than Mildred.  Throughout the novel Mildred makes a number of references to her spinster status in a somewhat joking manner but I sensed a defensiveness in tone which got me wondering if Mildred was as content with her situation as she assures the reader she is.

Still, Mildred's life is reasonably comfortable and predictable but then things take a turn when two new tenants, Rocky Napier and his wife Helena, move into the apartment above Mildred.  She gets entangled in their lives eventually becoming a go-between as the Napier's marriage comes apart.  Trouble is brewing at St. Mary's as well when Father Julian, who no one thought would ever marry, becomes engaged to the widow, Allegra Gray.  Allegra does not get along with Julian's sister Winifred and wants her to move out.  Mildred is dragged into this domestic dispute as well.

As a writer Barbara Pym has been compared to Jane Austen and I see the resemblance, the humor, the excellent writing and as with the narrators in Jane Austen's novels, Mildred is a keen observer of the world around her.  But maybe what Barbara Pym is also telling us is that observing life is not the same as living it, taking risks and being open to change.  There can be a danger in wanting to keep things exactly as they've always been and this is brought home with regard to another character in Excellent Women, Winifred Malory.

Winifred is a sweet and innocent woman who if she knew anything in life it was that she would always have a home in the rectory, helping her brother Rev Julian Malory run St. Mary's.  When Julian becomes engaged to Allegra, Winifred thinks it's wonderful.  She will simply move into the attic apartment and the three of them can help run St. Mary's together.  Allegra though wants Winifred out and at one point suggests that Winifred might want to join a religious order or live in a settlement house in the East End.  Avoiding change did not provide Winifred with security, quite the contrary, and so it pays in life to take sensible risks or others will make the decisions for you.

As to how the situation with Winifred, Allegra and Julian resolves itself I leave it to the reader to discover and I hope people will read Excellent Women.  I enjoyed this novel a great deal and as with many classics I was left with alot to ponder.  In a few months I am looking forward to my next Barbara Pym novel.