The loyal reader

It’s late. Friday night. I’m in a hotel room. One of those chain places they advertise on the television. It’s okay. Clean and predictable, though there’s no remote for the TV. That’s not a problem though. If I want the box, then there’s buttons on the top of the device. And anyway, I’m reading a book.

More than that. I’m reading the last of a series. Seventeen novels and a book of short stories. I’ve got the short stories to go, but I’ll finish the last novel tonight.

Like the Nick Lowe song says, I read a lot these days. And in the days before. And I’ve always been a loyal reader. Some writers I’ve stuck with since my childhood: Stephen King (everything except Salem’s Lot, which for some reason I could never get on with, and the Dark Tower sequence), Ian Fleming, Alan Garner, Kim Newman, Shirley Jackson, Peter Ackroyd, James Herbert. For years, Stephen Donaldson, Charles Dickens, Umberto Eco, Philip K Dick, Arthur C Clarke, Saki, Gregory McDonald. Rowling and Blyton and Clive Barker. Ramsey Campbell. I tend to skitter about much more and more, what with one thing and another, but from time to time I’ll lock into a writer and do whatever the novelistic equivalent of binge-watching is.

A year or so ago, it was Joe R Lansdale. Reading his stuff was like being fourteen again, to the extent of passing round paperbacks like they were contraband, except with work colleagues instead of schoolmates. He’s got a new novel in his Hap and Leonard sequence – it’s called Honky Tonk Samurai – out in a couple of weeks. I can’t wait.

For the last few months though, I’ve been on a Lawrence Block run. And I’ve only got Brian Koppelman to blame.

I started following Brian Koppelman on Twitter after coming across some of his six-second screenwriting soundbites; Vine video-clips with a zen nugget of writing-related wisdom. Now, nothing curdles the internet faster than writing advice, but Koppelman’s got interesting things to say, and says them in interesting ways. Check out his podcast The Moment for more in-depth stuff. 

Anyway, the point is this. One of Koppelman’s clips said words to the effect that if you want to understand character development, read Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder series of private detective novels in sequence. And that hit home, not least because it’s not a pat thing to say. Seventeen novels and a volume of short stories, remember.

The notion stuck.

A few weeks later, and I’m running out of Joe Lansdale material. When I’m bingeing I tend to alternate. One of the sequence in question, something else to refresh the palate. That kind of thing. I’m browsing the crime section of an out-of-town bookshop and I pick up two books. One’s Gun Machine by Warren Ellis. The other’s a Lawrence Block novel. Not one of his Scudder books, but a mid-series entry in another cycle; this one features bookshop proprietor and cat-burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr. What the heck; I buy both. Gun Machine is great, by the way. A psycho-geographic New York thriller. Read it if you haven’t. The Block is pacy, light and amusing, plus it presents a few neat twists and turns, and it’s dialogue-driven as heck. I’m sold.

I live in a small town that hasn’t supported a bookshop since I was a child. Block’s Scudder novels were published between the early 1970s and 2011. Normally, they’d be variable in difficulty to track down, and to get a run in sequence would be a protracted and perhaps expensive thing to be doing. However, they’re all available in ebook format. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what the format is for. The inexpensive and permanent availability of back-catalogue works.

So I start buying. Two or three at a time. I keep them for train journeys and nights away. And when I’m down to my last volume, I go online and re-up.

We first meet Scudder as an alcoholic ex-cop; he quits the force after accidentally shooting dead a young girl in the line of duty while drunk. He’s left a wife and two boys in the suburbs, lives in a hotel room, and supports himself by doing off-the-books private investigations. He punishes himself for his sins and his weaknesses with the drink, with tithing his earnings to churches, and with the drink again.

The novels are procedurals. The set-ups are similar. Someone hires Scudder, usually through a mutual acquaintance or recommendation, and he investigates. He uses his New York cop contacts and a developing network of informants and drinking buddies to navigate the city. He doesn’t carry a gun, but can handle himself. Sometimes he needs to be able to.

Relationships come and go. Friends remain. Eventually, Scudder bottoms out; the drink (bourbon and coffee, likely as not) catches up and takes over. So Scudder enters Alcoholics Anonymous. And, dammit, five novels in, we want him to get better. A redemption of sorts is hard-earned. And, slowly, slowly, Scudder climbs out of the gutter.

There’s more, of course. If you want the Cliff Notes version, try the recent movie adaptation of A Walk Through The Tombstones, with Liam Neeson as Scudder. It’s a very solid movie with a pleasing 70s thriller vibe to it, as well as being a decent attempt at telescoping Scudder’s backstory into the source novel’s narrative.

So, I’ve got the short stories left to go and that’s it. And the reading journey’s been more than worthwhile. These are fine books, with engaging characters and intriguing dilemmas. And across the books, something bigger. Each book’s got a plot, but there’s a layer of story over the top of the series that you only really begin to appreciate once you’re deep into the sequence.  

That’s not to say that Block’s writing - or Scudder as a character - will work for you in the same way. But it did for Brian Koppelman (who passed it on – there’s a foreword by him to the short stories as well) and it has done for me. But it might do.

And even if it doesn’t, or even if you never go near the books, then maybe you still have an obligation. If you come across a series that you like, or that you’ve had recommended in some way, and it’s worked for you, and if you think that maybe this is stuff that someone else might not come across without the heads-up, then say so.

Boost the signal. Make some appreciative waves.

It's a way of saying thanks.