Friday, May 23, 2008

The Book You Have to Read: “When the Sacred Ginmill Closes,” by Lawrence Block

And so we’ve had another night
of poetry and poses,
and each man knows he’ll be alone
when the sacred ginmill closes.
--Dave Van Ronk

Ginmill was the sixth private eye Matt Scudder book in print, but the first one I ever read. I’ve since become as big a Lawrence Block enthusiast as anyone else in their right mind, but something about this sad and beautiful baby still holds my heart. To think that any crime fiction lover might have missed it in the glare of more publicized Blocks is, quite literally, unthinkable.

Maybe it was the title, from a Dave Van Ronk song (Last Call) which I actually heard Van Ronk sing in some smoky Greenwich Village club once upon a time. I don’t think it was the booze (I’m Jewish, and a 5706 Manischewitz was a great year for my mom and dad). But the bars I didn’t dare walk into became in my mind Gentile temples of pleasure and temptation as Scudder moved from Armstrong’s to Miss Kitty’s (definitely not named after the lady on Gunsmoke) to Morrissey’s, where the bad luck and trouble began.

And I was absolutely knocked over by Block’s ability to tell, in 1986 (looking incredibly youthful and wise on the jacket of his novel), a story that happened in 1975, when Scudder was still drinking, without dropping in a flashback or missing a beat. A scene in which Matt Scudder tries to remember anything else important that happened in 1975, but can come up with only a fistful of sports highlights, might just leave you breathless.

If you haven’t read When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, it starts with Scudder drinking at an after-hours bar called Morrissey’s (“The legal closing hour for bars in the city of New York is 4:00 a.m., but Morrissey’s was an illegal establishment and was thus not bound by regulations of that sort”), when two masked gunmen break in, holding a gun on one of the Morrissey brothers. The other gunman turns his pistol on the elder brother, Tim Pat, as they proceed to rob the place--cashbox on the counter, another box in a safe, even a collection jar for IRA loyalists.

The gunmen escape with their loot, Tim Pat consults with his brother, then makes a speech to the trembling patrons (ex-cop Scudder never carries a gun) about how the whole thing was just a joke. Nobody believes it. Tim Pat later asks Scudder to look into the robbery--sucking in the always broke unlicensed private eye with a handsome offer. Two more clients--friends met in bars--rapidly line up to pay for Scudder’s services in matters of murder and blackmail.

The mood of the book is as boozy and dark as its settings, but I’d forgotten until looking back at the book again how Block could slide in a guffaw from time to time without overloading the boat.
She looked at me sharply. “You a cop?”

“I used to be.”

Her laugh was loud, unexpected. “Wha’d you get, laid off? They got no work for cops, all the crooks in jail?”
With that, I’ll now pass the “forgotten books Friday” baton over to one of the best writers and reviewers in the business, Dick Lochte. Expect his book pick here next Friday.


pattinase (abbott) said...

This would be in my top ten favorite crime novels. Just brilliant. Thanks for such a great review and for passing on the baton. Patti

dick adler said...

And thanks to you for kicking the whole thing off. New suggestion now keep showing up in my dreams...

Anonymous said...

One of the all-time great P.I. novels, and one of my favorite novels period.

r2 said...

One of my favorites, also. Almost poetic. I loved it. Lawrence Block is a master.

Kevin Burton Smith said...

Oh, Dck. Looks like you made a great choice, which means I did. PHEW!

I love GINMILL. Although at first I had viewed its appearance with trepidation, because by that time I had already discovered and enthusiastically gulped down the first five Scudders, wrapping it up with the seemingly series-ending 8,000,000 WAYS TO DIE -- one of the darkest but ultimately most triumphant books Block has ever written. How, I thought, could Block DARE to continue a series after wrapping it up on such a high note?

The answer, it turned out, was to just go higher and darker. When, four years later, Scudder returned with GINMILL, my initial hesitation soon disappeared. And the series has continued, in short stories and novels, swooping and soaring to new heights, making it one of the all-time great private eye series. And arguably the best New York-set mystery series ever.

i can hardly wait to see what Lochte does.

John Z said...

I absolutely agree, one of the best in the wonderful Scudder series; when I read it in the italian translation, in 1988 (italian title: L'ultimo grido, The last shout) I was stunned. perhaps it was the first book critic I wrote (for a little mystery fanzine, soon disappeared... but this is another story)
My copy was signed by Mr. Block during his book tour in Italy some years ago, a real pleasure!

Anonymous said...

...When the Sacred Ginmill Closes is my first of his Matthew Scudder Mysteries, based on a recommendation from the Rap Sheet’s excellent “Books you have to read” feature. Man, this is a seedy NYC I barely experienced. Nicely wrapped mystery, on the edge of believability, but stays on the side of light. I redouble Rap’s recommendation...