Lawrence Block


Bernie Rhodenbarr - Bookseller-by-day/burglar-by-night, New York City
Matt Scudder
- Unlicensed Private Investigator, New York City
John Keller - Assassin

"All the Flowers are Dying"

(reviewed by Hagen Baye MAR 23, 2005)

All The Flowers Are Dying is the 16th book of Lawrence Block’s acclaimed Matthew Scudder series, the first book of which, The Sins of the Fathers, was published in 1976. When first introduced to Scudder, he was a guilt-ridden ex-NYPD detective who at the time he “gave back [his] badge” had also abandoned his wife and two small sons and his house in suburbia, and moved into a seedy single room occupancy hotel on the edge of midtown Manhattan. There, the drink that his demons drove him to controlled his life. He barely supported himself by freelance, seeming lost cause investigative work that came his way, usually from cops trying to help out a down-on-his-luck former colleague.

Some 29 years hence, Scudder has come full circle. He had “put the plug in the jug” (i.e., stopped drinking) at the conclusion of the fifth book of the series, Eight Million Ways to Die (1982), and managed to remain sober one day at a time thereafter, faithfully attending AA meetings on a regular basis. He is now happily married to the former Elaine Mardell (a former call-girl with whom Scudder had had an affair while he was still on the force (and married) and she was still in the “game”) and, starting with the ninth book of the series, A Dance at the Slaughter House (1991), had developed an almost father-son relationship with a young man of the streets, known only as “TJ,” an African-American orphan, who came to be Scudder’s able assistant.

Scudder is also now in his mid-60’s, Block having him age in real time over the nearly 30 year span of the series. He is semi-retired, collecting social security and his City pension and a grandfather twice over. He is also increasingly conscious of his growing old (“…[L]ately I was starting to see age in every face I looked at, and I didn’t need a mirror to know I’d be able to spot it in mine.”), and thoughts of mortality is in the forefront of his mind (“So that’s one funeral I missed, but these days there’s always another funeral to go to.”). The source of the book’s title is from the following stanza of “Danny Boy”:

But if ye come, and all the flowers are dyin’,

And I am dead, as dead I well may be,

Then you will find the place where I am lyin’,

And kneel and say an Ave there for me.

Flowers revolves around three separate matters. First, there is the matter of Preston Applewhite, sentenced to death in Virginia for the sexual molestation and murder of three boys. Applewhite insists on his innocence, but the evidence implicating him is said to be irrefutable. During the week of his execution he is visited by a psychologist who tells Applewhite that he believes he is innocent. To the warden, the visitor explained that he lied to Applewhite in order to gain his trust, for he was engaged in study of criminals who insist in their innocence despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

The second and third matters involve women who are both dating mysterious men, men who are very secretive about themselves. One of the woman hires Scudder to check out the man she met through the Internet, to make sure he is not married and not otherwise trying to fleece her. The other woman is Elaine’s best friend, Monica, who refuses to reveal anything about her new beau, but who told Elaine that she has no way to contact him, that the only way they get in touch was by his calling her.

Then, Monica is viciously murdered and what little evidence there is points to her mysterious boyfriend. To everyone’s shock and dismay, the murder weapon, an ornate letter opener, is purchased from Elaine herself at her art shop, meaning that she was face-to-face with her friend’s killer. This connection, supplemented by other considerations, point to the deranged killer’s having Elaine and Matt in his sights as well. Elaine’s shop is closed indefinitely and she is confined to the apartment with either Scudder or TJ present around the clock. For further protection, Scudder borrows guns from his best friend, the career criminal, Mick Ballou. While all sit and wait to see what the madman’s next move is, he kills a number of innocents and sends out mixed signals about his intentions.

Flowers just may be the most thrilling of all of the Scudder books. Flowers’s villain is perhaps the most devious, diabolical and evil of all of the villains Scudder encounters over the course of the series. He is worse than the murderous cretin of A Ticket to the Boneyard (1990), the perverted mutilators of Slaughter House and A Walk among the Tombstones (1992), and the cold-blooded murderers of Everybody Dies (1998). He is said to have “the worst possible combination, an off-the-page homicidal maniac with an incisive, methodical mind.” He graduated from killing for profit or revenge to murdering for the pure joy of it. He remains a mystery from beginning to end; we never know where he came from or who he really is.

Block is absolutely masterful in building up and sustaining the tension and suspense of this well told story. He is aided by a narrative technique he first used in the immediately previous Scudder book, Hope to Die (2001). Whereas Matt Scudder was the sole narrator in the first 14 books of the series, in Hope to Die and Flowers the villain is given a voice, is the second narrator and the reader hears directly from the villain his thoughts and what he has done and what he plans to do. Thus, the reader knows all the terrible things the guy has done, the depths of his depravity, his utter disrespect for human life and the extent of his deviousness (particularly with the connivances that resulted in Applewhite’s execution)—which Scudder does not know about until later. Block uses this narrative method most effectively; it permits him to better and more fully reveal the character of the villain and to build and maintain suspense and tension toward the climatic finale, particularly because the reader knows of the villain’s plans for Elaine and Matt and the steps he is taking to implement them. At the critical moment, the reader wants to just yell out a warning to Elaine and Matt! The tension and suspense are simply palpable, heart pounding and nerve-racking.

At the conclusion of this kind of review, if warranted, the reviewer would typically say how much he/she looks forward to the next book of the series. However, there is a monumental fight-to-the-finish between sexagenarian Scudder and the much younger villain at the end of Flowers, and it would ruin the story to reveal who survives the fight. So, if one wants to know whether a 17th Scudder book is possible, Flowers must be read. And it will be worth it, as Flowers deserves to be ranked among the better Scudder books, which is high praise indeed, as previous books of the series have been awarded or short listed for the Shamus, Edgar and Maltese Falcon awards. And those readers who have not read any of the previous books of the series will not be at a disadvantage, as Block sprinkles in enough detail about the principal prior details of Scudder’s life that first timers will be just as capable of enjoying this latest Scudder installment as seasoned Scudder fanatics.

Postscript: Lawrence Block had originally decided to end the Scudder series with its fifth book, Eight Million Ways to Die (1982), when Scudder hits bottom and finally resolves to go sober. Block reasoned that Scudder’s “fictional d’etre had lost its raison.” However, just before that book was released, Block had promised Robert Randisi an original Scudder short story for an anthology Randisi was assembling, but which was on hold pending his securing a publisher. As luck would have it, a publisher was eventually found, Block kept his promise and “By the Dawn’s Early Light” resulted and that story would later be turned into the central plot of When the Sacred Ginmill Closes (1986), the sixth Scudder book. As we know, including Flowers, ten more Scudder books would follow Ginmill. How fortuitous for us all, indeed!

  • Amazon readers rating: from 52 reviews
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"Hope to Die"

(reviewed by Cindy Lynn Speer DEC 22, 2002)

"He has his key out, and slips it into the lock. Inside, the two men hear the key in the lock. The seated man gets to his feet, the pacer moves toward the door. Byrne Hollander turns the key, pushes the door open, lets his wife enter first, follows her inside.

Then they catch sight of the two men, but it's too late."

Matt Scudder and his wife Elaine were one of the last people to see them alive. Though they did not know them, they saw them that evening at a gala event put on at Avery Fisher Hall as a thank you to all the people who supported the arts over the past year. Matt and Elaine do not speak to Byrne and Susan Hollander, and, after the concert is over and everyone departs for home, the chance to do so disappears forever. The couple walk home, enter their beautiful brownstone, and are murdered by a pair of thieves who were lurking in the darkness, waiting for their return. Read excerptThis disturbs Matt partially because he thinks he might have known them, for they were, after all, often at the same events, and they only lived less than a mile apart. He and his wife, too, walked home that night, and such awful things could easily have happened to them.

His thoughts are not satisfied when the police find the killers, the loot unsold, in an apartment. One is murdered by his partner, the other dead by his own hand. 62-year old Scudder thinks it's too pat, but doesn't get involved until his assistant, TJ introduces him to Lia. Lia thinks that her cousin Kristen, the Hollander's 23-year-old daughter, is the mastermind behind the murders. Kristen had just recently taken up residence in her parent's home, needing a place to live after a bad break-up. It doesn't take long for him to be convinced that she's innocent, and he becomes worried that she may be the next target.

Most murder mysteries start off, well, with a murder. As does this one...but Block chooses a clever, if not poignant, way of telling us about the events. Since the story is narrated in the first person, he can not claim any real first hand knowledge of the events. So, he starts off telling us that the couple may have met at the fountain before coming upstairs, or that he may have gone and picked her up, but in either case they got there in time for drinks. Scudder knows that, because he thinks he might have seen them...then he goes through the evening, up until the murders, explaining that this is what he thinks happened. He knows the details, how the husband was shot, how Susan was assaulted before her throat was slashed...and he ends the scene beautifully. The gentleness of the end image, and the innate mercy and charity that that those who strive to be decent had left me all teary eyed, and I'd only been reading for a handful of minutes.

The hunt for the third, unknown entity is what takes up the rest of the story. Matt, who's been a detective for many years, even if he only does it in his spare time now, has a keen understanding of how investigations work, and slowly, but surely tracks down the killer. He makes some pretty awesome leaps in logic to get there, but they are entirely believable. The killer is inventive, terribly blood thirsty, and just a tad insane. In a couple of scenes he does things that require such guts to pull off, it really creeps you out when he is successful.

Block's prose has a wonderful flow to it. Matt, as he tells the story, has a voice that is sensible and wise, and sometimes he paints very beautiful images. Even when they are slightly horrific, there is a crystal-cut quality to them, and it makes this mystery an especially pleasurable read.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 45 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Hope to Die at MostlyFiction.com



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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

Hard Case Crimes reprints:

Matthew Scudder Mysteries

Keller Series:

Bernie Rhodenbarr Mysteries (reprinted 2006)

Evan Tanner Mysteries (reprinted in 2007):

Writing as Paul Kavanagh

Nonfiction:

Movies from Books:

  • Nightmare Honeymoon (based on Deadly Honeymoon)
  • Eight Million Ways to Die (1985)
  • Burglar (loosely based on The Burglar in the Closet) (1987)
  • Keller (based on Hit Man)
  • A Walk Among the Tombstones

 

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Book Marks:

 

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About the Author:

Lawrence BlockLawrence Block was born in Buffalo, New York in 1938. He attended Antioch College in Ohio then went to work in the mailroom of a New York publisher. His first story was published in 1957 and since has written more than thirty novels and countless stories and articles, not just under his own name but also as Paul Kavanagh. Indeed Lawrence Block has had several pseudonyms having learned his writer's art crafting erotic literature as Andrew Shaw, Sheldon Lord and Jill Emerson.

His novels range from the urban noir of Matthew Scudder to the urbane effervescence of Bernie Rhodenbarr, while other characters include the globe-trotting insomniac Evan Tanner and the introspective assassin Keller (Hit List). He has published articles and short fiction in American Heritage, Redbook, Playboy, GQ, and The New York Times, and has published several collections of short fiction in book form, the most recent being his Collected Mystery Stories. Larry is a Grand Master of Mystery Writers of America. He has won the Edgar and Shamus awards four times and the Japanese Maltese Falcon award twice, as well as the Nero Wolfe award. In France, he has been proclaimed a Grand Maitre du Roman Noir and has twice been awarded the Societe 813 trophy. Most recently he was awarded the Crime Writers Association Cartier Diamond Dagger 2004 award, rarely awarded to American writers. He has been a guest of honor at Bouchercon and at book fairs and mystery festivals in France, Australia, Italy, New Zealand and Spain, and, as if that were not enough, was presented with the key to the city of Muncie, Indiana. He is a past president of the Private Eye Writers of America and the Mystery Writers of America.

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