This is the 12th Matthew Scudder mystery, and in it author Lawrence Block has included some important new developments for his New York City private investigator. Chiefly, it involves Scudder's deepening relationship with Elaine, who has gone from call girl to girlfriend over the past few books, and also Scudder's now decade-long status as a recovering alcoholic.
There was a time, several books ago, when one would have doubted that Scudder could ever have enjoyed this sort of good fortune. He was a mess, a lonely, bitter alcoholic. Drinking led to his leaving the New York Police Department shortly after an incident in which he shot a 7-year-old girl.
Things are better now, although he's 55, knows that he's a stranger to his two grown children and still feels he hasn't accomplished much more than staying sober for a decade.
And Scudder still probes New York's underside, and still deals with the murderous and the low-lifes -- as well as the darkness in his soul. As he muses in "A Long Line of Dead Men": "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-fourths empty, and some days it's all I can do to keep my hands off it."
His continuing struggle to maintain sobriety and his moving into an intimate relationship with another human being are the underpinnings that support "A Long Line of Dead Men." Of course there's a mystery, and it's a good one. But we're mostly watching Scudder on his long trip back to spiritual redemption.
Tracking the chief protagonist's progression is one of the most satisfying parts of following a mystery series. For after a while, how the private investigator or homicide detective or medical examiner solves the mystery at hand -- although still important -- diminishes while we see how the character confronts old demons and handles new ones.
If the character stays fresh (James Lee Burke's Robicheaux, Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone), the series thrives. If the main character becomes predictable or the author grows complacent (Robert B. Parker, take a bow), the series becomes tiresome and the author's shortcomings as a writer are apparent.
Mr. Block is immensely knowledgeable about writing in general (he's written a couple of excellent how-to books) and mystery-writing in particular (he was named in April a Grandmaster by the Mystery Writers of America). "A Long List of Dead Men" clearly reflects the awareness that he must change things to keep his series strong.
As the book opens, we are introduced to the "club of 31." It's a strange group: Thirty young men, unknown to each other, are called to a plush New York restaurant in 1961 by an elderly man named Homer Champney. He is 88, the last remaining member of another club of 31 that was formed at the turn of the century. The group's objective: to meet once a year, enjoy each other's company, and compute how many members of the club had died off.
It's a celebration of friendship and, at the same time, a macabre death watch. As the years go on, one guy dies, then another. A fellow commits suicide; another dies in Vietnam. Others pass on in the '70s and '80s, and finally, in the early '90s, one club member starts to wonder: Why are we dying so fast?
He hooks up with Scudder and explains that only 14 members remain -- far too few for a group of men mostly in their 50s. Some of the deaths seem suspicious, he says -- suicides that could have been something more sinister, for instance. Was someone trying to kill off the club of 31? And could it be one of their own?
This is the plot line around which the book revolves. Uncharacteristically for Mr. Block, "A Long List of Dead Men" takes a long time to get started.
He's usually superb at keeping the tension going, but far too much of the book -- more than half, really -- involves the issue of Scudder's sobriety and his newfound domesticity. There's too much couples-type dialogue between Scudder and Elaine (though, thankfully, not on the level of the insufferably smug Spenser and Susan in Mr. Parker's books), and not nearly enough action.
But when the book gets going, it really moves. Mr. Block resolves the mystery in a rather ingenious fashion, and Scudder emerges again as a sympathetic, though deeply flawed,
character. How much longer the author can keep up the pace, we cannot know, but for now he has given us a consistently strong, imaginative series.
Mr. Warren's reviews appear Mondays in The Sun.
Title: "A Long Line of Dead Men"
Author: Lawrence Block
Length, price: 285 pages, $20