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Dustin LindenSmith

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Mini-review: Lawrence Block's The Sins Of The Fathers (1976)

Just finished the first Matthew Scudder novel by Lawrence Block and wanted to sing its praises while also offering an excerpt. I was first introduced to Lawrence Block's writing not much more than a year ago, despite the fact that he's one of the main titans of the crime fiction genre and a truly gifted, excellent author. The Scudder character is so immensely real and understandable that he comes right off the page to real life, it seems. I also love reading about Scudder's alcoholism, a trait which I've written about before, wondering aloud if Block has struggled with that problem himself. He certainly writes about it eloquently.

The excerpt I wanted to include today isn't strictly illustrative of the crux of Scudder's character, but it's an interesting look into the character's darker side. In this scene, Scudder has just left the umpteenth bar he's visited that night, and he was letting himself walk "with the special rolling gait that is the special property of drunks and sailors." In a doorway up ahead of him. Scudder became aware of movement, and when a young hood with a knife stepped from the shadows, Scudder "knew [he'd] been looking for him for hours." Circumstances of the case he was working on were getting to him, and he was looking for a fight, I guess.
He made sure I could see the knife blade. It was a kitchen knife, wooden handle, six or seven inches of blade.

I said, "Let's take it easy."

"Let's see that fucking money."

"Sure," I said. "Just take it easy with the knife. Knives make me nervous."

I suppose he was about nineteen or twenty. He'd had a fierce case of acne not too many years ago, and his cheeks and chin were pitted. I moved toward my inside breast pocket, and in an easy, rolling motion I dropped one shoulder, pivoted on my right heel, and kicked his wrist with my left foot. The knife sailed out of his hand.

He went for it and that was a mistake because it landed behind him and he had to scramble for it. He should have done one of two things. He should have come straght at me or he should have turned around and run away but instead he went for the knife and that was the wrong thing to do.

He never got within ten feet of it. He was off balance and scrambling, and I got a hand on his shoulder and spun him like a top. I threw a right, my hand open, and I caught him with the heel of my hand right under his nose. He yelped and put both hands to his face, and I hit him three or four times in the belly. When he folded up I cupped my hands on the back of his head and brought my knee up while I was bringing his head down.

The impact was good and solid. I let go of him, and he stood up in a dazed crouch, his legs bent at right angles at the knees. His body didn't know whether to straighten up or fall down. I took his chin in my hand and shoved, and that made the decision for him. He went up and over and sprawled on his back and stayed that way.

I found a thick roll of bills in the right-hand pocket of his jeans. He wasn't looking to buy milk for his hungry brothers and sisters, this one. He'd been carrying just under two hundred dollars on his hip. I tucked a single back into his pocket for the subway and added the rest to my wallet. He lay there without moving and watched the whole operation. I don't think he believed it was really happening.

I got down on one knee. I picked up his right hand in my left hand and put my face close to his. His eyes were wide and he was frightened. I wanted him to know just what fear was and just how it felt.

I said, "Listen to me. These are hard, tough streets, and you are not hard enough or tough enough. You better get a straight job because you can't make it out here, you're too soft for it. You think it's easy out here, but it's harder than you ever knew, and now's your chance to learn it."

I bent the fingers of his right hand back one at a time until they broke. Just the four fingers. I left his thumb alone. He didn't scream or anything. I suppose the terror blocked the pain.

I took his knife along with me and dropped it into the first sewer I came to. Then I walked the two blocks to Broadway and caught a cab home.
That's a lot more hard-boiled than he usually is, but I thought that was a great passage. So cold when he broke those fingers. And strangely, you feel Scudder's compassion at work when he saves the thumb. Incidentally, that move where he hits his nose with the heel of his hand is supposed to be pretty effective at slowing someone down. A Tae Kwon Do guy I know calls that one of the known "kill moves." If you jam the heel of your hand upwards against someone's nose, it can break off and lodge up in the brain, causing cerebral hemorrhage and death. You know, if you ever find yourself in that kind of situation. :)

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fireceremony September 10th, 2006

I was thinking about that move, but I guess if you push at an angle instead of straight up or something, it's not instantly fatal...

Good excerpt, sparse but effective writing and a hard boiled character indeed. But hard boiled without the flourishes and clichees typical for film noir.

Interesting! I've been reading a lot of different things lately and it's fun to see how much variation there is in modern fiction.

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