One of the two famous repeating characters in Lawrence Block’s fiction, the detective Matthew Scudder, is featured in eighteen books. He is a character enriched by a collection of evolving strengths and faults, not the least being his alcoholism. Block used Scudder to illustrate many different aspects of the disease, which he knew rather well:
- the ability to intellectually function better after drinking
- unpredictable bouts of bingeing and subsequent blackouts
- the lifelong struggle to maintain sobriety after detoxification
After the First Death (1969) is not a Scudder novel, but it illustrates the dark side of alcoholism in a manner that prefigures that series. The opening chapter, in which the main character undergoes a horrifying “What have I done?” crisis, is the most compelling start to a standalone Block novel that I’ve read so far. As ex-history professor named Alex Penn slowly wakes up after a night of heavy drinking, and he’s suffering from severe hangover and blackout. Unfortunately, his clothes are covered in blood, his keys and wallet are missing, and there’s a dead prostitute on the floor in his hotel room.
It turns out this is the second dead-prostitute situation Penn has woken up to. The first put him in prison for four years, ending in a successful legal challenge to his confession. Free but locked outside of society on the streets, Penn ended up living off savings and relapsing to his addiction. It’s a simple but good premise for a crime novel, since we see the mind of the alcoholic contend with the possibilities that he is either a serial murderer or a target of an unseen enemy.
Following his escape from the hotel room (not much of spoiler in my mind), while quietly on the run in lower Manhattan, Penn struggles with his memories related to his blackout:
Later or earlier, a cop trying to decide whether to run me in. Was I sick? Was I all right? Could I get home myself? God, if only he had run me in. God in heaven, if only he had run me in.
But when had a I got hold of the knife? Where and when had I picked up the girl?
The gradual process of memory recovery leads Penn to doubt that he actually did the killing (this time, anyway). He “sees” in his past, just prior to a fade to black, someone else plunging the knife into the girl’s throat. However, Block described how this newly-accepted idea – by the Supreme Court, no less – of unreliable recall of memories sprung this confessed killer out of prison. Could this just be the cloudy reversed version of a false self-incrimination? There’s more holes in the story of some “other” stabbing Robin (the victim) than in my simple assumption that we’re seeing an updated Jekyll-and-Hyde situation.*
Convinced that he’s been framed twice (because if he is innocent, he’s innocent, right?), Penn goes on a quest to find the real killer and dodge the authorities at the same time. Fans of Block might recognize this set-up as the beginning of every Bernie Rhodenbarr novel (besides Scudder, Block’s other very popular series). Of course, the Bernie books are witty and light – the closest thing to “cozy mysteries” that I’ve read – and AtFD is a much darker tale. In at least the first six books of that series, Bernie has never had to convince himself of his innocence, unlike Penn:
Because suppose the memory of that arm and hand were a false memory, a schizoid separation of self from self. Suppose, then, that a part of my mind had chosen to see myself kill Robin and view it as the act of another man. Suppose —
I was not going to let it be that way. No.
Penn spends much time considering different possible culprits, chases clues, and sitting around thinking. The passages describing his thoughts are a weakness of the novel; there is paragraph after paragraph of hypothetical actions taken by characters we’ve been momentarily introduced to. Penn’s unreliable version of conversations an events are the only viewpoint, and it becomes a drag to follow the subsequent theorizing. This is one area Block improved upon in the Scudder series, where the detective does his reasoning in a far more economical fashion.
Once Penn finds another prostitute that knew Robin, they form an unlikely partnership. He gets time and new leads to chase proof of his innocence, and she has a chance to share the weight of her sins as well. This part of the novel is not badly done, and it indirectly brings some depth to the lives of the murder victims, but it doesn’t seem altogether plausible. Again, this seems like a preliminary version of essential elements of Block’s more celebrated books.
AtFD is not going to be known as one of Block’s best works, and as his second manuscript to be published in hardback, it seems to mark a transition from the stack of potboilers of the early 1960’s to far greater things. It’s a more rewarding book than Borderline, but not as tight of a read as Lucky at Cards. Like A Diet of Treacle, it has some compelling parts to it but falls short in the way these parts fit together. Those who are curious about Block’s earlier writings, and the beginnings of his efforts to draw characters from his own past, will likely find this one worth a look. 6/10.
* I have long maintained the Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is really about alcoholism. It remains the best novella-length fictional treatment of this incredibly important social and medial issue.