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Falling Out of Love

December 3, 2011

I think if you’re an enthusiastic reader there’s sometimes a tendency to fall in love a little bit with authors. Not in a sexual way, but in the way where you enjoy spending time with them, where you miss them when they’re not around and find yourself looking forward to spending time with them again. Because of this bond, so too can we feel betrayal from our favorite authors.

Lawrence Block is a very well-respected crime/mystery writer who has been creating stories for a long time. He’s written multiple series, but he’s best known for his Matthew Scudder series of crime novels. Scudder is an ex-cop, living and working as an unlicensed private investigator, and dealing with his own personal demons and his alcoholism and through Block’s masterful pen we grow closer to, and identify with, this richly complex and multi-dimensional character.

Through 10 books I’ve grown to know Matthew Scudder well and I’ve fallen in love with Lawrence Block a little bit. And now I feel betrayed by Lawrence Block.

I’m buzzing along through the series and enjoying each story more than the previous one, which is really difficult because I thought Eight Million Ways to Die was an amazingly good book. So now I’m in book 11, 1993’s The Devil Knows Your Dead, and our hero takes a client to see a lawyer named Drew Kaplan. Kaplan asks for a $5,000 retainer, which is money the client doesn’t have, and after some finagling they eventually settle on $200. Says Scudder: “See? They’re all alike. They start out high, but you can generally Jew them down.”

Whoa.

Matthew Scudder has always been a character who operates by his own morals, and his questionable ethics have been interesting to experience but I don’t recall him ever being offensive like this and for me the change is disturbing. So much so, that I put the book down and two days later have yet to pick it back up again. I’d like to finish the book – and the series – but I don’t think I will. I don’t know if I can.

It’s not really what Scudder said that I question so much, it’s that he said it that really bothers me. It’s a very anti-Semitic comment and it’s totally out of character. I can accept anything a character might say or do in a story as long as it’s consistent with the character. As to Scudder’s offensive word choice, I could even accept it coming from him if that belief was in keeping with the character. For example, if this were a series with Archie Bunker as an unlicensed private investigator, I would expect him to be making hateful and offensive comments like that and I wouldn’t be surprised when he did. I might still be offended, but I wouldn’t be surprised and I would keep reading. But with Scudder, it’s different because never before in any of the previous 10 books had he given any indication that those were his thoughts or that he was prone to making anti-Semitic comments. This was an out of the blue comment and a shock.

Maybe I’m overreacting, but I don’t think so only because I’m not reacting to the language or that it was said in the context of a story, I’m reacting to the sudden and unexplained change in character.

So I’m a little sad because not only do I feel a betrayed by Lawrence Block, but I think I fell out of love with him as well.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 3, 2011 5:30 pm

    Random: Reading 2 blog posts by two different authors who both mention Lawrence Block – an author I’m not familiar with – in entirely different contexts and written within 24 hours of one another. Here’s the link to the other: http://scripting.com/stories/2011/12/02/ourShortAttentionSpan.html (Dave Winer – created the blogger software and RSS).

    I don’t think you’re overreacting. When a character – an acknowledged flawed character – displays a trait so completely out of character after you’ve spent literally years getting to know him is disconcerting and heartbreaking. Especially when it’s to this extent.

    I have to admit something to you though (and it’s not an excuse) – there is something that weighs pretty heavily on my mind. Growing up in Wyoming, raised by a Good ‘Ol Boy and a southern woman, there are some horribly discriminatory phrases in my rusty vernacular that, to this day, occasionally catch me by surprise and horror. Things like “Indian giver”. I used that phrase a couple of years ago and, as the words left my mouth, I was horrified at myself for not recognizing its derogatory connotation and had to remind myself to be careful with common phrases from my childhood. This wasn’t a phrase I utter often. It’s not one I can remember having said within the last decade. And yet, it rolled off the tongue without thought.

    Given that, is it possible the author, in developing his character (because character development – in life and literature – never ends) was subtly indicating a flawed piece from the character’s past? Something that was taught but that the character had never realized was anti-Semitic? Again, not an excuse. I’d be just as offended as you, I suspect, if Anne of Green Gables, for instance, said such a thing. It’s just…I don’t know. Part of stinky, flawed humanity?

    Sorry. I probably should have just written a novel about it on my own blog instead of taking up comment space on yours.

    Like

    • Michael Fishman permalink
      December 4, 2011 4:20 pm

      Stinky, flawed humanity. I like that! It could be a flaw that will eventually become more apparent because the character is certainly flawed, but I don’t think so. I think what it was was a poor attempt at humor. Or the author trying to make the character more “real”. And you’re welcome to take up as much comment space here as you’d like!

      Like

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