When the Sacred Ginmill Closes by Lawrence Block Review

In the dark days, in a sad and lonely place, ex-cop Matt Scudder is drinking his life away and doing “favors” for pay for his ginmill cronies. But when three such assignments flow together in dangerous and disturbing ways, he’ll need to change his priorities from boozing to surviving.

For me, discovering Lawrence Block and his Matt Scudder series reignited my interest in the simple, but by no means boring, hardboiled mystery genre. When the Sacred Ginmill Closes is the sixth book in the series and the sixth I’ve read. A little trivia. This novel was first published on January 1, 1986, four years after the fifth book in the series, Eight Million Ways to Die. This one evidently resurrected Block’s interest in the Matthew Scudder character since he went on to write twelve more Matt Scudder books, the last in 2013.

Usually, I review recently released crime fiction books or those pending release. At first blush, it may seem a little strange I’m reviewing a novel first published in 1986. But I’m doing so for two reasons. I find Scudder and his world so vivid and alluring that I’ve quickly become addicted to the books. I’ve binge read the first six. And it seems only fair to bring them to the attention of other hardboiled mystery fans who haven’t heard of Lawrence Block and his Matthew Scudder character. Fans of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels will find the Scudder novels just as enjoyable for similar reasons. Also, it seems there is a renaissance of interest in hardboiled detective mysteries. As an example, a recent check of the book page for When the Sacred Ginmill Closes on Goodreads showed that 247 Goodreads members were currently reading the book and that another 1,803 members have marked it as “want to read.” There are many very good new release novels out there that can’t boast numbers like that.

The Matt Scudder series is classic hardboiled fiction. When you read a hardboiled novel, you have no doubt about what you’ve got in front of you. It’s a unique genre, and a well written hard-boiled novel sets the pace right from the jump. There is something fascinating about the dark, seedy, and deeply cynical style the genre has. Hardboiled stories show us a view of a society where corruption and immorality are the norm, and no one is truly innocent. While the protagonist is usually a detective or someone who takes on the role, we find we are dealing with a deeply flawed individual, and his or her own morality or lack thereof is as much a part of the story as the mystery itself. This protagonist is most often a cynical person who has seen it all and for whom the line between good and evil has long since blurred. Usually, the protagonist has adopted and follows his or her own personal code of right and wrong.

Matt Scudder ticks all the boxes we expect from the protagonist of a hardboiled novel. He’s a loner, has a cynical worldview, and has the predictable flaws. He’s an alcoholic, divorced, and lonely. Yet he prefers his solitary existence. But Scudder has unique characteristics that set him apart from characters like Spenser and Marlowe and Sam Spade. He does private detective work, but isn’t an actual private investigator. Scudder is an ex-NYPD detective who does “favors” for people he encounters, but favors he collects payment for. He simply has no interest in obtaining a private investigator’s license, filing expense reports, or paying taxes. Yet his police training enables him, between bouts of drinking, to solve the cases that come his way in a professional manner.

By the end of the fifth book in the series, Scudder’s habitually hard drinking is causing him physical problems, and he comes to terms with being an alcoholic. But Block, perhaps after returning to the series after a four-year break, wrote When the Sacred Ginmill Closes a little like a flashback to a time when Scudder was still drinking heavily and before he began experiencing serious blackout spells.

The book opens with Scudder having drinks at an unlicensed after-hours bar with acquaintances when two masked armed men rob the bar. The two Irish bar owners want Scudder to find out who robbed the bar and to give the owners the names so that they can take things from there. Scudder reluctantly agrees to do the “favor” but he knows taking a payment for identifying the robbers if he finds them will be the same as accepting blood money. He has no illusions about what type of retribution the Irishmen have in mind. As the story plays out, Scudder ends up doing “favors” for two other acquaintances and eventually the three cases come together in unexpected ways with some rather shocking results.

I enjoyed this book as I did the previous five and will read the rest of the books in the series. Scudder reminds me a little of my favorite gumshoe, Robert B. Parker’s Spenser, but Scudder is a unique character in his own right. And this book and the others are classic hardboiled mysteries, and that’s right down my street.

Book rating: ★★★★

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