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Literature / Matthew Scudder

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"I've never been too good at looking on the bright side. Mostly I tend to notice the rot, the collapse, the urban entropy. It's my nature, I guess. Some of us see the glass half full. I see it three-quarters empty, and some days it's all I can do to keep my hands off it."
A Long Line of Dead Men

Mystery series by Lawrence Block. When the series starts Matthew Scudder is an ex-NYPD detective, following a line-of-duty shooting that left a little girl dead, and an alcoholic, living alone in a hotel after leaving his wife and two sons. He takes work as an unlicensed private investigator, looking into things for people (and if they happen to slip him some money, he'll take it).

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The first few books are largely interchangeable, but in Eight Million Ways to Die Scudder begins to get serious about getting sober. Subsequent books show him befriending Irish-American gangster Mick "The Butcher" Ballou and reconnecting with prostitute Elaine Mardell (whom he had known when he was on the police force). Another important supporting character is TJ, a streetwise black kid who can go places Scudder, who never really stops looking like a cop, can't.

Two of the books have been made into movies: Eight Million Ways to Die (which changed a lot, starting with relocating the action to Los Angeles) and A Walk Among the Tombstones (which was somewhat closer to the book, but still changed some things).

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Books in this series include:

  • The Sins of the Fathers (1976)
  • In the Midst of Death (1976)
  • Time to Murder and Create (1977)
  • A Stab in the Dark (1981)
  • Eight Million Ways to Die (1982)
  • When the Sacred Ginmill Closes (1986)
  • Out on the Cutting Edge (1989)
  • A Ticket to the Boneyard (1990)
  • A Dance at the Slaughterhouse (1991)
  • A Walk Among the Tombstones (1992)
  • The Devil Knows You're Dead (1993)
  • A Long Line of Dead Men (1994)
  • Even the Wicked (1997)
  • Everybody Dies (1998)
  • Hope to Die (2001)
  • All the Flowers Are Dying (2005)
  • A Drop of the Hard Stuff (2011)

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Tropes in this series include:

  • The Alcoholic: Matt, as well as his AA sponsor Jim Faber and sometime-girlfriend Jan Keane. Heavy drinkers not in the program include Mick Ballou and Danny Boy Bell (who drinks vodka like it's water but never shows any sign that it's affecting him).
  • Bi the Way: Jan Keane, whom Matt dates on-and-off for a while. Elaine hints that she has experimented a bit, presumably at the instigation of her clients, but isn't necessarily bisexual.
  • Catchphrase: TJ has a couple. When returning a page, he demands, "Who wants TJ?", even when he knows who he's calling back. He also has a tendency to end sentences with a proper name that rhymes with the last word he said, Ted.
  • Clipboard of Authority: One piece of wisdom Matt passes along to TJ is that if you're carrying a clipboard, people assume you have a right to be where you are and will answer your questions more readily. (TJ makes sure not to dress in his, ah, street clothes when making use of this technique.)
  • Corrupt Cop: Matt was one, to a certain extent. His first partner taught him that when money comes your way, you take it, and he later admits that he never supported his family only on his salary. On the other hand, there were lines he never would have crossed, and he becomes genuinely enraged at the thought that someone could bribe their way out of a murder charge.
  • Gentleman Thief: Matt and his cop friend Joe Durkin discuss the concept at the beginning of Hope to Die in the wake of a burglary that led to rape and murder. Durkin admits there were never that many gentleman thieves, but at least burglars in the old days didn't do what the men in this instance did. They grabbed what they could and got out.
  • Gray and Black Morality: Matt was a crooked cop who took bribes, and once shot a little girl by accident, but the people he goes up against are even worse then he is. He's also friends with Mick Ballou, one of the most notorious gangsters in the city, and neither one can fully explain the basis of that friendship.
  • Hollywood Hacking: Mostly averted in A Walk Among the Tombstones (in a subplot that was removed for the movie). The "Kongs" start out with social engineering, calling phone company employees to get information they need, and when they reach their limits with that it still takes them several hours to accomplish what they're trying to do.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Elaine.
  • Impersonating an Officer: After leaving the force, Matt will sometimes call phone company employees or the like and get information by saying he's a detective and giving a badge number, which they never bother to look up. He makes a point of saying he's from, say, "the Two-Two" rather than "the Twenty-second Precinct," because even though cops don't always talk that way, civilians always think cops talk that way.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Scudder himself. The earliest example of this was in the very first novel where he mused that he often preferred his potential clients to be assholes, because he didn't have the heart to overcharge for people he liked. He also left his family but he wasn't quite a deadbeat since up until Eight Million Ways to Die he regularly called up his wife and provided them with a healthy cut of his own money.
  • Kick the Dog: In Hope to Die, Adam Breit remembers how he had a patient who was allergic to her dog, so he told her he found a farm somewhere where the dog would be happy and managed to switch her affections to stuffed animals. But actually, he killed the dog and left it in a satchel in a park. (Mind you, we know by this point he had already killed several people, so we didn't really need this to show what a monster he was.)
  • Knowledge Broker: Danny Boy Bell.
  • Locked Room Mystery: In Even the Wicked, Scudder describes the "murder" of Adrian Whitfield as this because there do not seem to be any holes in his security that would allow the killer to get into his apartment and poison his liquor. Then it turns out that Whitfield committed suicide.
  • Mood Whiplash: The snuff film Matt sees in A Dance at the Slaughterhouse starts out as what appears to be just a bondage film, with a young man tied down as a woman has sex with him while another man watches. Elaine, watching the tape with Matt, starts to get into it. Then the man cuts off the boy's nipple.
  • Neck Snap: In Everybody Dies, Mick does this to Andy Buckley after Andy betrays him.
  • Not That There's Anything Wrong with That: All the Flowers Are Dying has a BDSM variant, and the character specifically mentions the trope-naming Seinfeld episode.
  • Portmanteau Couple Name: A non-romantic one, as far we know, in A Walk Among the Tombstones: the Kongs, David King (Jewish) and Jimmy Hong (Chinese).
  • Private Detective: Of the unlicensed variety.
  • Private Eye Monologue: Matt's narration occasionally slides into this.
  • Pressure Point: James Leo Motley, a psycho Matt had put away when he was a cop (who resurfaces in A Ticket to the Boneyard), used these to hurt and immobilize people.
  • Psycho Sidekick: Mick "The Butcher" Ballou.
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: During one of their late-night talks, Mick tells Matt about a job he did during which one of his underlings tried to rape a woman. Mick pulled the guy off and told him to get out of town and not come back, because that's one thing Mick just wouldn't tolerate. (And keep in mind, Mick didn't get the nickname "The Butcher" from slaughtering cows.)
  • Revealing Cover-Up: Late in A Drop of the Hard Stuff, Matt notes that if the killer had just left things alone, Matt would have dropped his investigation, but he kept "stir[ring] the pot" and bringing Matt back into it.
  • Snuff Film: A Dance at the Slaughterhouse begins with somebody discovering a video cassette showing two serial murderers torturing and killing a victim in the case of a copy of The Dirty Dozen at a video rental store. By the end of the novel, it's still unclear whether the leaking of the tape was a mistake on the part of the killers or a deliberate act of trolling by them.
  • Stray Shots Strike Nothing: An aversion; Matt left the police force because he accidentally shot a little girl in the line of duty.
  • Throwing the Fight: Matt's first meeting with high-class pimp Chance takes place at a boxing match because Chance had a financial interest in one of the fighters. When the two talk later, Matt makes it clear he could tell the fight was fixed in favor of Chance's man; Chance is impressed by his perceptiveness.
  • Unintentional Period Piece: In A Dance at the Slaughterhouse, an AA acquaintance of Matt's gives him a videotape he rented that shows what appears to be a murder, copied in the middle of a movie. Obviously, this story couldn't really happen anymore.
  • We Should Get Another Tape: A Dance at the Slaughterhouse begins with an innocent third-party getting hold of a video tape of The Dirty Dozen that also includes scenes of a pair of serial killers torturing and killing a victim. The killers also killed the guy who made the tape, but didn't expect him to have a copy hidden in a commercial cassette (which was subsequently sold to a video rental place).
  • Whole Episode Flashback:
    • When the Sacred Ginmill Closes takes place in the earliest days after Matt has left the police force (roughly 1975).
    • A Drop of the Hard Stuff takes place in 1983, at the earliest point when Matt is working on his sobriety. (This one is deliberately framed as a story Matt tells Mick during one of their late-night get-togethers.)
  • Your Cheating Heart: Matt met and slept with Elaine when he was married. After he reconnects with Elaine and has been seeing her for a while, he starts sleeping with a client, Lisa Holtzmann. When he and Elaine marry, she hints that she knows he's been seeing someone else, and tells him that nothing has to change (her past as a prostitute having convinced her that men cannot be one-hundred-percent faithful).
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