A Walk Among The Scudders

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There is something distinctly odd about Matthew Scudder.

On the surface it can be hard to say just what. Scudder, created by Lawrence Block, is an ex cop and current unlicensed private eye who lives on the mean streets of New York. He seems to fit neatly into the tradition of the literary private eye. One of many solitary, independent, tough men who prowl the urban environments cleaning up after the dark deeds of evil people. This archetype has made up the bulk of detective fiction since Hammett.

But there is something different about Scudder; though initially defined by the tragic accidental shooting of a little girl he’s less haunted by it as he is annoyed at how thoroughly the event upended his sense of himself. Scudder is emotionally muted, he shows no real attachment to his children, no real desire for justice or conviction that there is such a thing, he doesn’t often become incensed on his client’s behalf or angry with the villain of the novel. The defining characteristic of Scudder is a kind of moral exhaustion. By the time he comes up with the solution to his case (usually through sheer doggedness rather than deductive brilliance) he often just plain doesn’t have the energy left to care anymore. In one book he finds out a man running for governor had sex with a child and killed to cover it up. His solution is to blackmail the man into not running for governor anymore, thinking that since the child probably got paid for his trouble then it all came out in the wash. Another Scudder story ends with him and a man who killed an innocent suburban housewife sitting down at the kitchen table and deciding jointly to go to the police, if- you know, it’s not too much trouble- it’s not like Scudder is going to force the issue or anything. In yet another Scudder finds out that he has been sleeping with a serial killer, turns her in, estimates that she’ll get about a year in jail and goes, “that sounds about right”. Long before Rust Cohle was annoying people in the interrogation room Scudder was making his claim to the title of the world’s first moral relativist detective.

To really get why Scudder stands so far apart from the usual heroes of the detective genre it helps to understand that the tradition of the Private Eye in American crime fiction is actually two separate traditions. There are those who descend from Sam Spade, vicious, vaguely sociopathic operators who usually solve cases out of spite; from whom we get the likes of Mike Hammer. And those who come out of Phillip Marlowe, wry, bruised romantics searching as much for a sense of truth and order in the world as they are for the solutions to whatever mystery they happen to be solving. From whom we get Travis McGee, Patrick Kenzie et. al.

The interesting thing is that Scudder stands equally outside of both traditions. He is not a romantic like Marlowe, nor a hedonist like Hammer. He lives an almost monkish existence in a furnished room and after giving up alcohol in the fifth book of the series he has shockingly little in the way of personal attachment, material pleasure or idealism. What he lives for is not entirely clear, either to himself or to the reader.

Perhaps this is why is has taken so long for Scudder to make the transition from page to screen. Scudder does not follow the rules of the hero or the anti hero, but instead acts by his own inscrutable internal barometer. It’s as though Camus’s Stranger decided to get into the detective trade. As a result we as a reader have very little sense of what Scudder might be capable of at any moment. Which causes a paradoxical shock at what he does and a distinct lack of surprise that he has done it. In the climax of one book he mutilates the corpse of a woman he was sleeping with to frame another man for her murder. It’s hard to root for a guy like that. Hard to picture up on the screen. But it also makes him fascinating and gives him the reslience needed to power a series for almost forty years. There is no one else on the page who is quite like Scudder. In his genre, as everywhere else, he is fundamentally alone.

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The Author

Bryce Wilson

Bryce Wilson

Confirmed film geek and literary nerd. Writer for Paracinema and Art Decades Magazine, columnist for the San Luis Obispo New Times and author of Son Of Danse Macabre. Resides in Austin, TX.