I know there’s a book of short stories and a novella to read but this is about as fitting of a conclusion to the Matthew Scudder saga as any. Block’s novel is a throwback to Scudder in the early days of his sobriety, and like his previous throwback novel When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, this too feels like a self-contained story and not an author trying to do a cash-grab prequel rife with easter eggs.
In this one, Matt is struggling with his sobriety almost as much as he is trying to figure out who killed an old childhood acquaintance. There’s an easy cliche to follow with two paths taken: Matt became a cop, the other guy became a hood. Yet they both wound up as alcoholics, which I think is Block trying to say something on a deeper level about the unlikely ties that bind us, no matter how much we try to escape.
While the mystery is kind of standard fare for a Scudder tale, the ending, like most of his endings, managed to knock me over. I don’t want to spoil it but it’s not what I expected. Block is usually quite good at subverting expectations and he absolutely knocks it out of the park with this one.
Two other things worked for me that kind of sum up some leftover thoughts I have on the series…
- I don’t think I’ve ever liked Elaine’s character much and her absence isn’t missed here. Even if Matt’s love life is a mess at this point in his life, and I’m glad he eventually found happiness, there’s always been something off about her character that I can’t articulate. I don’t need Matt to be a loner still in later novels but I’ve just never glommed to her. It was nice to have a novel without her.
- The death of Estrellita Rivera weights heavily on Matt’s conscience early in the books. This fades gradually as he kicks booze and that’s intentional. Since Matt’s still working on his sobriety, she looms over this one and it seems to be Block in some ways closing a loop: for we know Matt was eventually able to let go some of his guilt around her death. He at least realizes he’s never going to find closure but he also knows if it’s out there somewhere, it’s not at the bottom of a bottle.