It’s funny how professional life as an adult can drastically affect the reading habits one develops growing up. I was voracious reader from the time my mother taught me to read (somewhere around three years old; I could read when I went to school, which in the U.K. was at 4 years old in the seventies). My love of books, comics, television, film and genre started in those single digit years, almost all of it thanks to my mum and her open-minded attitude towards my choices and developing taste. You can trace the greater chunk of the pleasures I take in these arenas to then: historicals (Henry Treece’s Viking novels, Rosemary Sutcliff’s Roman books, Roger Lancelyn Green’s retellings of British myths and legends), fantasy (Tolkien’s Father Christmas Letters and The Hobbit) and SF (Patrick Moore’s Scott Saunders series, the Target novelisations of Doctor Who, Arthur C. Clarke’s Islands in the Sky and Of Time and Stars). Detective and crime fiction would come to define the beginning and end of my teenage years, soft-boiled first, hard-boiled last, and I would try to keep up with my faves in all these genres across the nineties, until the poverty of being a professional secondary teacher forced me to cut back to only what libraries had.
As a teacher of History and English, there was a lot to read just for the job, so what I found relaxed me were things I didn’t always have to teach, even if they were tangentially related. SF faded slightly in favour of fantasy and crime, although some historicals continued to exercise a fascination despite the day job: Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe sequence, Lindsey Davis’ Marcus Didius Falco series, and Patrick O’Brian’s superlative Aubrey & Maturin novels. When I left the teaching profession for the private sector and new media, SF became a focus again, particularly Ken MacLeod and Richard K. Morgan. Then something strange happened. I read less and less and less, other than for work. As with my love of music, working in DVD/film/TV just somehow dampened all that down.
At the time I thought it was just a matter of the music and books that were coming to my attention, the creative choices being made by bands, solo artists and authors I had been following for years by then. I still feel now that English-language science fiction in particular as a genre lost its way in the first decade of this century, evinced in particular by the turning of a significant number of creative voices to the thriller genre, or some to the fantasy genre. It was as if arriving in the long-dreamt-of, much-anticipated 21st century robbed so many of them of their extrapolative visions. But then, I felt the same way about fantasy and horror, including their unholy mutant offspring urban/dark fantasy, while crime fiction seemed to become about nothing more than typical middle-class fears or fantasies, trailing behind what television and film could and would say (spy-fi was even worse off; like the intelligence services themselves, four years behind the curve they needed to be on to staff up adequately against the latest global threats of this century, the fiction would scrabble around for relevance for years). Much as I enjoyed the books of, say, George Pelecanos, there is no question in my mind that being part of the collective that created HBO’s The Wire was and is the more significant achievement for myself as a consumer of fiction. (That statement in no way affects his works, his success, or the feelings anyone reading this has about his works, of course.)
Youth makes it easy to labour under the illusion one has milked a particular genre or strand of media dry, so intent is one on absorbing as much as possible of it. One sees this in particular with the most dyed-in-the-wool, hard-core fans of any medium, from painting to sculpture to cinema to music (popular or otherwise) to videogames. At their best, those obsessed with a particular focus may utilise their detailed knowledge to become experts in relevant fields, disseminating that knowledge and their thinking on to others; at worst, they will bore you with masturbatory theorising and irrelevant minutiae in blogs like this one, instead of as they used to do by hijacking conversations down the pub. However, depending on where the evolution of said medium is at the point one first encounters it, there is every possibility one is indeed witness to a key moment in that medium’s existence, be it one of prodigious quality across the output or a transformational shift that is recognisable even to those not enamoured of the medium. Separating one’s own point of view from the actual broader ebb and flow of history is one of the many things one learns to do as one grows older; indeed, the ability to recognise that the separation between opinion and factually-supported statement actually exists and has value is part of the maturation process itself.
I now understand that whatever else was happening in those genres, whatever economic, cultural and political factors were impacting creatively in them, who I was and what I was going through is in the end the emotional matrix under which I laboured and interpreted them. There was also something else, something in the kind of life I was living working and going out in London, which meant I just didn't make time or use energy to devote to past passions in quite the same way. New technology made keeping up with music on the move easier, while the new portability of DVD players and then media players made TV and film easier to take in on the commute. Bizarrely for someone raised like myself, reading faded from a passion to a skill, a sad, sad thing indeed to recall and write down here. This has nothing to do with the writers or the genres collectively, even if there may be some truth in my perceptions of them.
I had to disentangle myself from the media and all the toxicity I had fully embraced as normal and desirable to start to recover my mental and physical health over these last two years. In that time, insomnia has propelled me back to the bad habits of my youth, reading late into the night, unable to sleep until a book was finished no matter if that meant seeing the sky lighten outside the curtains. (Spare a thought here for my poor partner, desperate for sleep before her next working shift, putting up with my bad habit here. Sorry Kim!) But at least I’m reading again, and it’s been a joy to do so, to refresh, re-examine and enjoy all over again the written word and the pictures painted by them inside my head.
Which brings me to the Matthew Scudder novels. Lawrence Block is a giant in the crime fiction arena. He would be just based on his prodigious output, but the quality is also consistently exceptional, and his peers recognise this, granting him awards and Grand Master status of the Crime Writers’ Association of America. Of the five series he has maintained over the course of his career – Bernie Rhodenbarr, Keller, Evan Tanner, Chip Harrison, Matthew Scudder – it was the latter I was drawn to last year. Having now read the entire series, it not only clearly stands out as the monumental achievement that many others have already expounded upon, and occupies an interesting place within the evolution of the genre itself, but it became something more than mere entertainment for me. It became part of my therapy.
Scudder is, like many leads of crime fiction, a former cop, in this case a New York detective. A hard-drinking white male of Irish origin, capable of violence but not prone to it or seeking it out like some, he is at first, when the series opens in the seventies (the books are pretty much set when they were written, except for two flashback novels), a man without direction. He seems content to get up each day in the hotel room he rents, go down the bar he frequents, have breakfast, order coffee, and start putting bourbon in it. As the day wears on the coffee will go and the bourbon will stay. He wasn’t fired, drummed out some scandal, in fact quite the opposite; he was decorated for a shooting in which he killed two criminals, but a stray bullet caught a little girl through the eye, ending her life. Scudder walks away from the job, his wife and kids, into this New York life that allows him to drink and not much else, until he starts to use his training and instincts to look into matters for others. No license means no legal protections but no legal limits either; he calls the process doing favours for gifts, i.e. cash. And he starts to find something in this life, something that is his beyond whatever it is he is carrying that no amount of drink seems to be able to wash away.
Block’s sense of place and dialogue means the books function as a chronicle of a changing New York over the decades as much as of a man growing and changing over that time. Unlike other crime series, Scudder evolves as a man, changing with his surroundings, friendships, and the passage of time. Along that path he does things that are morally questionable if not downright reprehensible, without the cloak of law or an innate moral certainty of justice, but he debates and considers these actions rather than dismissing them or celebrating them, and that in itself makes him stand out from so many other morally compromised protagonists of the genre. His actions indicate someone wrestling with himself, with his past, with his present, with the very idea of a future. It takes a book or two for readers to realise his drinking isn’t simply a genre cliché, but a very real drowning of sorrows that takes him over, leading to those morally questionable incidents and actions. Where this leads was as much a surprise to me as I imagine it came to those who read the books as they were published in real time: Scudder comes to realise he is an alcoholic and, after experiencing serious blackouts, finds his way to AA and their programme. No macho celebration here of the ability to drink until one passes out - how refreshing for the genre!
A simplistic reading of my own feelings over the course of these novels would be: Scudder enters a form of therapy, I’m doing therapy, bingo! Association made, perceived connection, false resonance. If that were all, however, then I would not be writing this piece. Block’s masterful use of the genre to his own ends offered me a parallel vision of a man (seemingly completely unlike me) and his place in the world at a time when I was without one, lost, unable to see any kind of future that resembled or meant anything real to me. How he felt about work and family had resonances for me given my own departure from my last profession. It also made me realise to what degree I was reliant on alcohol for many, many years, something that even diabetes didn’t cure me of completely until last year. (Or at least the medication I am on did.) And when I wasn’t reliant on alcohol, I was on food, or all the media & fiction consumption mentioned above. All my life I have moved from crutch to crutch, seeking refuge in consumption of one sort or another. Block’s writing, Scudder's journey, did more than entertain me through dark insomniac nights; it offered examples of a way forward. Scudder needed to do more than come to terms with being responsible for the death of a girl; he also had to find a way to be someone day to day in the now that encompasses who he was in all facets, and gives him those things that he gradually realises he needs.
This is not to dismiss or decry consumption of fiction, or to damn my past actions and self. I realise now I cannot be a person who does not read; I am not someone who does not enjoy reading fiction. It has been part of me for so long now I realise how badly I missed it when I didn't, like listening to music (this post has been written to a soundtrack of The Who, Scarlett Johannson and the Mark Lanegan Band). At times in my life fiction has helped me cope, get by, but now is the first time I can honestly say it has helped me survive. This has, in its own way, been one long ode to the joy and value of books and reading, but also a heartfelt thank you to Lawrence Block and Matthew Scudder; if a DJ can save your life, why not an author too? Just maybe, I see a future now for me too.