Book Review : Lawrence Block - Out on the Cutting Edge (1989)
I have a thing for detective novels. They're tend to blur the lines of morality better than most. Detectives are paid by desperate people to "do the right thing" and operate outside the confines of the law, so they're always free to be absolute savages about it. I don't read many series because they tend to become same-y after a couple volumes, but one I've always stuck with is Lawrence Block's private detective Matthew Scudder. I've recently finished volume #7 Out on the Cutting Edge and force it so admit, that guy doesn't know how to be boring. What makes Scudder such a special character? Why does Out on the Cutting Edge succeeds where so many volume #7's have failed?
Let's find out.
In Out on the Cutting Edge, Matthew Scudder doesn't have a whole lot to do. He's pursuing the cold trail of Paula Hoeldtke's disappearance and battling the demons of his newfound sobriety. The girl vanished from her New York city boarding house in the summer and literally dropped from the face of the Earth. While going in circle trying to chase leads, Scudder meets Eddie Dunphy, another recovering alcoholic who seems to find him fascinating and Willa Rossiter, a sexy and lonely landlord with... you guessed it... an alcohol problem. Scudder's tumultuous private life starts taking over his professional occupations sooner than later and he'll have to fall back on work not to capsize into alcoholism again.
Going back to a character I know well hasn't felt this satisfying in a long time. It was also the first Matthew Scudder novel Lawrence Block wrote in three years, then. Only the second in seven years, so Block was also going back to Scudder in some sort. So, Out on the Cutting Edge is somewhat of a celebration of the character more than it is a straightforward mystery. There is no real case wrapping up the novel, just one cold trail and an occurrence happening halfway through Scudder decides to investigate. His personal life keeps overlapping with his detective work, but like all great storytellers, Lawrence Block finds a way to tie it all together. That's what makes Matthew Scudder so unique and endearing. Tragedy is not just his profession, it's something that keeps finding him no matter what he does.
Another thing I liked about Out on the Cutting Edge is that there is little to no violence in it. Violent events happened and he's investigating them, but Scudder solves just about everything by talking to people and using psychology to get the answers he want. It's a very Chandler-esque novel in that regard. The Matthew Scudder novels don't usually overflow with violence, but Out on the Cutting Edge is particularly devoid of it in a way that doesn't call attention to itself. It's still bleak and hardboiled, but the characters aren't showboating their toughness and it's something I really got a kick out of. Scudder is, in fact, spending more time trying to find the goodness in him than flexing like a prototypical New York tough guy. There's a part where he withdraws $100 from his client's payment in $1 bills in order to give beggars. Loved that detail.
The first thing I did after finishing Out on the Cutting Edge was hopping on Amazon and ordering A Ticket to the Boneyard, the following volume in the Matthew Scudder series. If that doesn't tell you everything you need to know about how good these novels are, I don't know what well. Sure, they're detective novels. They're a bit unambitious by nature and don't try to be an emotional experience in and of themselves, but in Matthew Scudder's case, the more you invest in him, the more rewarding it becomes. Emotional attachment keeps building little by little with every novel and before you know it, you begin caring more about the character himself than the cases he's working. Out on the Cutting Edge was perhaps my favorite Matthew Scudder novel since A Stab in the Dark. Get some Scudder, you guys. He's the fuckin' best.