Copyright July 21, 1999 Richard M. Dubiel
Sober Sleuths: Lawrence Block and James Lee Burke
This paper isn’t an exact one-for-one comparison of two authors and their place within the genre of detective fiction. Nor is it an attempt to place each, or both, in a category within the genre. Rather, it is an attempt to show how each author uses recovery from alcohol as a distinguishing characteristic of a hero and how perceptions and actions are colored by the fact of his recovery.
Related to this is the involvement each has with a world of evil. Given the spiritual basis of the Alcoholics Anonymous program, each man is confronted, though to different degrees, with the fact of evil. In this sense, pursuing justice, delivering "bad guys" to the law, or avenging a wrong is not enough. Beyond this each man feels that he must to some extent be involved with the evil he sees. There is a personal fascination with the pursuit of crime, often (especially in Burke) the world horror, the very fabric of their fictional universes.
The paper has another dimension and that is its work-in-progress status. As will be seen, the author is interested in exploring the dimensions of evil as they permeate both works, but more so in the case of James Lee Burke. While both authors present a world inhabited by sociopath grotesques, it is Burke who has characters that seem to belong in a class by themselves. And the hero, Dave Robicheaux, recovering alcoholic he is, cannot resist the pursuit of evil in a way that makes Block’s hero, Matt Scudder, seem rational by comparison. Unfortunately, given the time limits of this paper, this dimension of the paper is only hinted at. Development of this topic is forthcoming in another paper.
Lawrence Block: Biography
Lawrence Block was born in 1938 in Buffalo, New York. He graduated from Antioch College (Ohio) and began collecting rejection slips during those undergraduate years. He went to work in the mailroom of a publisher in New York and married in 1960, resulting in three daughters. He later divorced (1973) and had a second marriage in 1983.
Block published his first story in 1957. He also wrote under the pseudonyms of Chip Harrison (five) and Paul Kavanagh (three). Overall Block wrote more than thirty crime novels and hundreds of articles and stories, including works on writing fiction. Three of his works were adapted into films.
Block’s first popular novels were his Evan Tanner novels, written as international intrigue novels with crime/comic overtones. The novels feature a "half-crazed Korean War vet who doesn’t sleep because of a shrapnel wound in his brain." 1 Along with these came his Paul Kavanagh novels, according to one writer some of his best work and clearly precursors to the later Matt Scudder series. But before the appearance of Scudder, Block wrote a series of Chip Harrison novels, using that pseudonym. Chip is a teenage orphan who is sexually aware, "on the make" and clearly a survivor, living by his wits and sense of adventure. His adventures are often puerile and markedly adolescent but provide recreational reading of another sort.
Block’s light-hearted side was never to be extinguished. Written alongside the Matt Scudder books, the point of interest in this paper, were the Bernie Rhodenbarr novels, eight in all. The series sports titles such as Burglars Can’t be Choosers (1978, the first), The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling (1981), and The Burglar in the Library (1997). Bernie is clearly in the tradition of the urbane sophisticate detective and/or thief, definitely British in tone though his name might suggest another national origin. While Bernie gets involved in solving any number of crimes, his methods involve a bit of larceny since he is fond (some say addicted) to breaking into houses and apartments. An accomplished locksmith, his skills allow him to gain entry, snoop for clues, and help himself to some cash to finance his current project. His helpmate is a short, affable lesbian who owns a pet grooming business.
The setting is New York, but the lighter side, not the shadowy world of Matt Scudder, as we shall see. To add to his charm, Bernie owns a secondhand bookstore, which manages to limp along. In essence, Bernie lives in well-heeled Manhattan. He is a sunny Park Avenue, a well-swept street, a pleasantly appointed café or restaurant. Add to the setting a doorman, assorted rich people attending concerts at Lincoln Center. Contrasted to this is the world of Matt Scudder, a denizen of Hell’s Kitchen, an alcoholic, and just this side of a barfly. His world is subway grit and grime, sawdust on the floor. Later, in terms of his redemption, he will add the musty smell of church basements, where a community-sized percolator fills the brightly-lit room with the aroma of steaming coffee. Add cigarette smoke and we have the AA meeting that saves Scudder from destruction.
In an afterword to the publication of a hardcover edition of The Sins of the Fathers (1991) Block reminded the reader that Matt Scudder changed over the years. We will see this shortly. While Block does not discuss alcoholism in his life (as does James Lee Burke) he does acknowledge certain biographical parallels: "When we started out he and I had certain things in common. I, too, was living on West Fifty-seventh Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. I, too, was recently separated from my wife and children. Like him, I spent a lot of time in the neighborhood gin joints, and much of it at Armstrong’s."
Lawrence Block won the Mystery Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America in 1994. He is also the multiple winner of the Edgar, Shamus, and Maltese Falcon awards.
Matthew Scudder, was married at one time, living in Syosett, Long Island, before finding himself living in a hotel on West Fifty-seventh Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues in Manhattan. So he told the tale in When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, a pivotal book in the Matt Scudder series. He was married for twelve years with two children before leaving to live in "the city."
The Cop as Outsider
Matt was a NYPD detective "about as many years" but left after a child was killed in a crossfire. He sends support checks to Long Island "irregularly" to "Anita and the boys," and supports himself "by doing things for other people." To avoid licenses, tax forms, and reports, Matt works as a true independent. He is "for hire", but remains an unlicensed detective. As Matt tells it, he always has enough money to pay the rent and buy booze. The occasional support check gets sent.
Matt began the series at rock bottom, living in a hotel, as he does in …Ginmill…. He frequents darkened churches, leaves money in the poorbox, and seems haunted and unfocused, until he is on the job. He uses the hotel desk clerk as a message service and telephone answering machine. His helpmate, Elaine, is a call girl with a golden heart. His relationship with Elaine is significant in that it is a way to get to his ethos. While on the job, Matt is focused to the exclusion of other thoughts. But when dealing with Elaine, or telling the reader about his relationship, we get a view of his inner-thoughts. And someplace in-between solving crimes and talking to Elaine, Matt tells us about his relationship with the most powerful force in his life: alcohol. That will take the form of his visiting with cronies from Alcoholics Anonymous and attending meetings.
Call Girl Wife
The reader is frequently invited to wonder if and when Matt will ask Elaine to give up her trade to remain with him alone. Elaine even states in an off-handed way "I’d give it up if we got married" (A Dance at the Slaughterhouse, 106). But she is quick to retreat. "If you pretend you didn’t hear that, …I’ll pretend I didn’t say it. We never even say the L word and I went and said the M word." She adds, "I should learn to stay in the F’s where I belong. I don’t want to get married. I like things just the way they are." Of course things don’t stay the same. As the series progresses, Matt becomes more domestic. By 1997, (Even the Wicked), Elaine is a real estate investor, proprietor of a small shop on Ninth Avenue (dealing in "artwork and furnishings") and wife. The battle of the bottle only seems to have been won. Matt is far from free of alcohol—or Matt. He struggles with "the disease," giving it the good fight. He is sober, but AA is never far from his thoughts.
In Even the Wicked, Matt gives the reader a fair account of his relationship with Elaine, beginning with him meeting her when he was "a married cop and she was a sweet young call girl" with an apartment in Turtle Bay. He mentions that they got married and how their love has "grown infinitely broader and deeper with time" (101). But Matt’s ambivalence is present. Apparently he was still seeing a girlfriend even after his marriage to Elaine. On their very honeymoon (in Paris) they agreed to continue "being ourselves and living our lives. The rings on our fingers didn’t change anything" (100).
Several pages later, Matt continues the subject, telling the reader that "Elaine has made it clear that she doe not expect me the be strictly faithful. Her own professional experience has led her to believe that men are not monogamous by nature, and that extracurricular activity need not be a cause or a symptom of marital disharmony" (131). Matt’s marriage, then, allows his love to be expressed, without interfering with any lustful instincts. An enviable situation for many men indeed.
The Outsider Remains
Despite this apparent domestic tranquillity, peace does not extend into the city and not into the heart of Scudder. Matt has to be the outsider. Even though he had his private investigator license restored in Everybody Dies (1998), the novel ends with the distinct possibility that he’ll lose it. He hears the following when being confronted by the New York police: "What the hell’s the matter with you? You’ll lose your license." Matt, ever the noir detective, replies, "You know something? I don’t care if I do…What the hell do I care?" (290-291).
Elaine soon after tells him that he really wanted the license "to be respectable," but really didn’t need a license to prove this point because he was "respectable all along." Matt, perhaps sensing too much domesticity, tells her, "No…I wasn’t, and I’m still not. But the license didn’t change a thing" (291).
Even the Wicked contains at least one other section of now-and-then recapitulation regarding Mat’s life. It further reflects his ambivalence regarding his respectability. Part of Matt’s ethos is that he never forgets where he came from, how he struggled with the bottle, how he used to light church candles and put money in the poor box. He reflects that he still tithes but does so with Elaine and a checkbook. He concludes that "things change" (141). This new respectability with Elaine, like the checkbook tithing, "is, to be sure, a more regimented way of doing things. I feel more like a solid citizen and less like a free spirit, and I do not always prefer it this way. But neither do I spend much time chafing at the collar" (141). At such moments Matt loses touch with AA’s cornerstone principle: honesty.
He must, as he does, enter into the belly of the city to confront evil. In fact, this novel sees a number of AA meetings where Matt has to confront himself. His need for meetings and the nature of the "disease" is alluded to in several novels but nowhere better than in Even the Wicked, a later work in which, as we have seen, Matt Scudder is supposedly domesticated and comfortably "recovered." Matt is trying to track down a vigilante known only as Will (he signs his letters The Will of the People) and is beginning to show signs of wear and fatigue.
While walking along and thinking about the case he finds himself standing in front of his old haunt, Jimmy Armstrong’s saloon. "Why? It wasn’t because I wanted a drink, was it? Because I certainly didn’t think I wanted a drink, nor did I feel as though I wanted a drink. There is, to be sure, a part of me deep within my being that will always thirst for the ignorant bliss that is alcohol’s promise. Some of us call that part of ourselves ‘the disease,’ and tend to personify it. 'My disease is talking to me,' you’ll hear them say at meetings. 'My disease wants me to drink. My disease is trying to destroy me.’ Alcoholism, I once heard a woman explain, is like a monster sleeping inside you. Sometimes the monster begins to stir, and that’s why we have to go to meetings. The meetings bore the monster and it dozes off again" (Even the Wicked, 129-130).
Matt realizes that he was not thinking about a drink as much as thinking about his old girlfriend, who is tied to the case in an oblique way. He reminds himself of his special relationship with Elaine regarding his non-monogamous options, but passes on it. Shortly after Matt again feels strange stirrings and realizes that he should attend a meeting. He again reflects on his alcoholism:
"Something evidently had me wanting to go to more meetings, and I didn’t argue with it. The thought did come to me that I’d been sober for too many years to need so many meetings, and I told the thought to go to hell. The fucking disease almost killed me, and the last thing I ever want to do is give it another chance" (Even the Wicked, 139).
When not attending meetings Matt spends his time with Elaine, or with TJ, his African-American sidekick, or by visiting coffeehouses, parks, or, a specialty of his, empty churches. But Matt is aware of his alcoholic nature. He is vigilant, introspective, and cautious. He recognizes that the monster can consume him at any moment, a mark of a solid AA practitioner. A distant goal, one that seems to constantly outrun Matt, is serenity. Given his choice of work and his immediate work environment, not to mention New York itself, Matt sees this goal slip out of his reach at each attempt. One of the promises of AA is "We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace." This is something that may forever elude him. The reason may be the very nature of the detective hero.We will return to this topic later.
Stephen King: "No Cats"
Stephen King wrote an introduction in 1992 to the hardcover edition of The Sins of the Father (Dark Harvest, Arlington Heights, Ill.): "No Cats: An Appreciation of Lawrence Block and Matthew Scudder." The original book appeared in 1977 as the first Scudder novel and by the ‘90’s an appraisal was certainly in order, even if written in an ironic style. King furnished that appraisal.
King’s point is simple enough. Lawrence Block doesn’t use tricks or shortcuts to establish the identity of Matt Scudder. King contends that authors frequently use ownership of a cat, usually "ragged toms with big balls and one chewed ear" as a sign of the P.I.’s "sensitivity." According to King this is a way of the author saying "Hey! My guy is different from all those other guys because he’s got a cat!" King then lists other gimmicks that authors use to achieve the same effect: "…because he’s telepathic….because he’s a she….because she’s a lesbian," to name a few.
The introduction reminds us that quite a few investigators have appeared "since Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe had those mean streets pretty much to themselves… "Now the private investigator has to manifest various eccentricities, feature special tastes, favor certain foods and products, or have arcane hobbies. One need only think of Nero Wolfe---or a dozen others. King’s contention is that Matt Scudder is special in detective fiction because he is not special. "If you met him on a New York Street, you’d most likely pass him without a glance."
What is real is the milieu, his New York. His descriptions evoke the atmosphere but without "mirrors or hoops of fire." One could add that if a reader were unfamiliar with New York, Scudder’s descriptions would apply to other contemporary urban settings. To a New Yorker this is an impossible statement, but to a person who has visited bars in any number of towns, it can be said that Block knows how to get to the essence of the dive, the club, the lounge, the neighborhood tavern, the faux and real Irish pub. But yes, he does capture the unique character of New York. His city is the city of the resident, not the tourist, not the commuter. Nor is it the city of the wealthy. With the Scudder novels we feel and smell the city, the blasts of heat from the subway grates and the clouds of bus fumes as we cross the wide black asphalt streets of mid-town Manhattan.
The real distinguishing characteristic of Matthew Scudder, of course, is his alcoholism. (Some might say that this comment and others that follow also apply to Dave Robicheaux.) King counters the obvious claim that this condition is in itself a "cat," a bona fide eccentricity. Rather than being a cat, Scudder’s alcoholism is a "meditation on a facet of the private investigator’s character which has been there from the beginning." Sherlock Holmes as a "cokehead" is the required reference at this point. Further, his alcoholism is a "genre archetype which Block has used to bring the myth of the hard-drinking investigator to its logical conclusion" (18).
King recounts the history of P.I.’s with Lucky Strikes and hidden flasks. While Scudder (and Robicheaux) are loners true to the romantic tradition of the genre, King reminds us that Scudder is vulnerable, beyond the usual clichés and "wish-fulfilment"of the myth of the super-masculine and (yet) hard-drinking P.I. Scudder, according to King, "missed his dose of that mythic Real Man Serum---the stuff that allows private eyes to drink rye all night and get up the next morning to a breakfast of bacon and eggs" (17). Scudder is a maintenance drinker, "sipping black coffee spiked with bourbon."
Scudder’s account of his neighborhood in terms of the bars located there, or the names of the bartenders, or the closing time, or the location of his favorite after-hours joint---all in the opening pages of When the Sacred Ginmill Closes---isn’t classy, masculine, or in any way an attempt at bravado. It reflects the mind of a practicing alcoholic, a person with a pathetic lifestyle that will lead to insanity or death. It portrays the realm of men who develop bloated and pasty faces, with or without red blotches, those who sit silently at the end of the bar, hunched over a drink. It is the realm of morning shakes and endless "formless fears" to steal a phrase from Eugene O’Neill. And to borrow from another drinker of note, F. Scott Fitzgerald, it is the place where hell is three o’clock in the morning.
This leads King to conclude that Block has created "a character who utterly transcends the genre from which he sprang" (18). To add to the strength of Scudder as a character, Matthew does not fall into the category of "recovered." As every AA knows, the word is "recovering," to drive home the point that the monster is waiting for a wrong step. Sobriety is only "One Day at a Time"--- and with the help of a Higher Power. And any program is doomed unless there is the fear of returning to the place from which one has just come. Throughout the series, whether by Block’s design or not, Scudder has doubts, as well as temptations. His need for meetings is never overcome, as well it should not be if an alcoholic is to remain "in recovery." He never quite trusts his God, as King points out, frequently driven to exasperation over the crime and horror of the city. He has no easy answer for himself or others. He does what he has to: to dwell on the outside, on the edge, content to be who he is, as he should be. For all we know his sobriety may not include the quest for peace and serenity. After all he is a private investigator.
James Lee Burke: Biography
James Lee Burke was born in Houston, Texas, in 1936, growing up in the midst of the Depression. He claims that his family was fortunate. His father was employed on the pipeline, saving the family from the destitution that surrounded them. James’ father was later a natural gas engineer and his mother a secretary. His distinguished Louisiana family includes five generations of lawyers. Young James grew up in Catholic schools and claims that it was the nuns that got him reading. Despite this he had a less than sterling high school academic record, marked by his early drinking experiences.
Burke claims to have stopped drinking and moved on to what is now the University of Southwestern Louisiana. Working hard to become a writer, he nonetheless transferred to the University of Missouri in 1957. There he met Pearl, his Chinese wife who escaped Communist China in 1949. Burke got a B.A. from Missouri in 1959 and an M.A. in 1960.
As befits a young writer, Burke embarked upon a career that would take him into the world of his fiction, not that this was necessary for a man of his imagination and abilities, coupled to the fact that he was already immersed in the cultures of Louisiana and the East Texas coast. During the next period Burke drove trucks, worked with a surveying team, and as a pipe fitter in the Texas oil fields. He also took a social turn, working as a Job Corps teacher in Kentucky (the source of his early novel, To the Bright and Shining Sun, 1970), and social worker in South Central Los Angeles. His taught English at Wichita State University in Kansas for several years.
Whereas Block is publicly silent on his personal involvement with alcohol, Burke’s descent into the abyss of booze appears to be critical in his development as a writer and he does not hold back on this point. (Could there have been an Under the Volcano without alcohol?) The People biography I have referred to is only one of several biographical sketches of Burke that include references to his alcoholism.
During this period Burke’s drinking became a problem, despite the fact that his family grew (Jim, Andree, Pamala, and Alafair). Although he had three novels in print, his would-be fourth set something of a record in rejection slips. The Lost-Get-Back Boogie (a tale of a country singer who finds his way to Montana) was "rejected over 100 times." Burke claims to have "hit bottom" (official Alcohol Anonymous parlance) in 1977. Afterwards he worked at sobriety by "white-knuckling it," another AA phrase referring to staying off alcohol by sheer will, without the benefit of the program. True to the AA message, Burke claims that those years were horrible, with a great anxiety coupled to periods of depression.
Burke doesn’t hold back when describing this period. He describes a "severe psychological pain that is of such severity people almost sweat blood. It’s really bad. A person who goes through it makes contact with himself, at one point, where he goes across a line. And this is when serenity comes." Burke goes on to describe this as his "Gethsemane experience," not unlike the spiritual crises that befall Graham Greene characters.
In 1982 his life changed with his introduction to the AA program. The 12-step program provided the basis for a fear-free life and one that redirected his energies. It was then that Burke wrote The Neon Rain, the first Robicheaux book. In exact chronology, Burke claims to have gotten the idea for the Robicheaux series in 1984 while fishing in Montana’s Bitterroot River. At the suggestion of a friend he decided to try to write about an "alcoholic Cajun cop who was haunted by memories of Vietnam."
In 1989 Burke was able to buy a big house in Missoula, Montana, even though a second home on the bayou is in their future. His routine includes writing from morning until midnight but includes daily meditation and trips to the health club with Pearl. Critical for this paper, James Lee has rediscovered his Roman Catholic faith and regularly attends mass as well as his 12-step meetings (AA one could safely assume). Fishing, dancing and playing blues and country music on the guitar round out the writer. If nothing else, Burke is a southern gentlemen, a man who
claims that when he gets to heaven he wants to meet Robert E. Lee, who is "emblematic of all that’s fine and gentle and brave in human beings. Men and women, those are the qualities that redeem us: Kindness, humility, and courage."
Humility is a trait that defines Burke. He takes his talent as a gift and writing is simply "a way of paying back the debt he incurred by accepting the gift….I believe these books were the ones I was meant to write. God doesn’t make mistakes."
Burke’s work includes the Edgar Award-winning Black Cherry Blues (1989). He is a Guggenheim Fellow.
Burke and Dave Robicheaux
While there may be parallels between Lawrence Block and Matt Scudder, they are slight compared to those between James Lee Burke and Dave Robicheaux. Both men call New Iberia, Louisiana, home, both are recovered ("recovering" to AA’s) alcoholics, and both studied English at what is now Southwestern Louisiana University. Both have daughters named Alafair. Both speak of a "Cajun vision of the world."
The political views of the Burke must also parallel those of Robicheaux especially as these relate to American foreign policy in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s and Latin America in the 1980s. Burke does mention belonging to Amnesty International and apparently having an active role in that group’s Underground Railroad. Burke’s novels are hardly silent on political issues regarding foreign policy, the environment, and the welfare of the truly underprivileged. Further, the moral and ethical underpinnings of both men are tied to strong attachments to the Catholic Church and, of course, the landscape, "Cajun Country, and the natural world of Louisiana in general. For Burke the role of the Catholic Church may be stronger than that of Robicheaux, but Dave cannot divorce his moral quest, his uneasiness in the face of evil, from a Catholic background that informs his conscience, if not very consciousness.
The role of family
A final parallel exists, one that is a distinguishing feature of Dave Robicheaux when compared to the army of other P.I.’s, rogue detectives, and, if you will, Sam Spades-at-large. That is his attachment to family and the past. Unlike the typical noir detective, Dave is a man with a deep sense of history and his own past. This includes his father Aldous’ hard-working two-fisted ethic and the southern legacy in general. In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead brings the southern history dimension to the foreground as Dave meets with the ghost of Confederate General John Bell Hood. Elsewhere, Dave honors the death of his father by throwing a bouquet of flowers on the site of an oil rig accident that claimed his life.
Family is an important part of Robicheaux’s life, as it is for Burke himself. Direct parallels here are weakest, as they ought to be, but the fact remains that Dave is one of the few fictional detectives with as strong a sense of family. Dave Robicheaux’s still point in his turbulent universe is undeniably his boat and bait shop, his wife Annie (later Bootsie) and adapted daughter Alafair. For a bit of comic relief, add a three-legged pet raccoon, Tripod.
The reader gets to know a good deal more about Dave than he/she does Matt Scudder. We know more of the anguish and trauma of Dave. Sunset Limited, Burke’s most recent novel, opens with the following:
"I had seen a dawn like this one only twice in my life: once in Vietnam, after a Bouncing Betty [land mine] had risen from the earth on a night trail and twisted its tentacles of light around my thighs, and years earlier outside of Franklin, Louisiana, when my father and I discovered the body of a labor organizer who had been crucified with sixteen –penny nails, ankle and wrist, against a barn wall."
Dave Robicheaux, we learn in each of the novels, is nicknamed "Streak" owing to a patch of gray running through his dark hair. A Cajun born near the Bayou Teche, Dave collects 78 rpm jazz records, loves Cajun music, enjoys ham and onion sandwiches, and is deeply immersed in Civil War lore. Serenity is an elusive goal with Dave ever since his Vietnam experiences. Amongst other things, he has shrapnel in his leg that sets off metal detectors.
The reader also learns a few unpleasant details. Dave’s mother ran off with a bourre dealer from Morgan City, but not before the young boy caught them in flagrante delicto (A Morning for Flamingos, 78). In Black Cherry Blues the young Dave witnesses the confrontation between his father, the man (Mack), and his mother. The scene is if anything sad and pathetic as the young boy watches his mother leave the brief visit. Some years later, while standing anonymously in the crowd, he watches her working as a barmaid in a dive, occasionally dancing with patrons: "…and when she danced with one of them she pressed her stomach against his loins" (242).
Parallels: Matt and Dave
While both Matt Scudder and Dave Robicheaux are violent and seem to seek whatever cathartic release that action affords, it is an odd coincidence that both men were former detectives who turned in their badges. While Dave most often works as a detective for the Iberia Parish Police Department, he was a detective with the New Orleans Police Department for fourteen years. He gets into a number of unpleasant situations that have him resign by the end of the first novel, The Neon Rain. Even though he can remain, Dave chooses to leave.
Matt Scudder left the police force after he accidentally killed a seven year-old girl in a shutout in which he killed one robber and wounded another (In the Midst of Death, 36). His dealing with the corrupt force didn’t necessarily bother him; it was a way of doing business, a business that ultimately got to the serious crime: murder and drug trafficking (In the Midst…33-38). But the murder of the young girl was too much. Importantly, both Matt and Dave leave the official ranks, but never give up life in the midst of crime.
This paper could go on and discuss the moral dimensions of each hero, or each author. But in the interests of sticking to the AA dimension of each character, a number of generalizations will be made. The critical review of James Lee Burke by Van Dover and Jebb (The Detective in Southern Literature) affords a platform on which to begin. While ultimately praising Burke, their critical points of allow an economical way to approach both men and make some comparisons.
According to Van Dover and Jebb, the Dave Robicheaux novels lack a sense of coherence. In comparing Burke to Raymond Chandler, they maintain that both authors "design their narratives as a sequence of dramatic events." Briefly, this refers to "obligatory logical links" between "dramatic contests." The idea here is that the villain is confronted in some fashion and the action leads in that direction. Another phrase to describe this critical approach is plausibility of motivation or plausibility of consequences for any given action. Burke, they contend, seems to fly along with an uncompromising energy, and "the reader may well have difficulty describing how Dave got from experience A to experience Z." The point for now is that Burke indeed has an energy and a force that seems to make Scudder’s world, despite its own New York variety of evil, seem more in line with the world of, say, Edgar Allen Poe or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
The second criticism of Burke that Van Dover and Jebb raise it admittedly "more debatable." Beginning with the premise that detective fiction is inherently moral, Dave is criticized for being "primarily …a destroyer." He has no coherent moral position or point of reference. His ambivalence towards his own position of authority, extending to that of the New Iberia Police Department, is balanced by his wish to win the approval of those with whom he works, ironically including the sheriff. Yet, Dave is not a part of the establishment. His moral choices and opinions are not those of Reagan/Bush conservatism. His position regarding "oilcan" congressmen, polluting industries, and misguided foreign policies places him on the outside.
Further, despite his seeming populist leanings, he is no Mike Hammer. Dave cannot assume that he shares the core values of the people at-large. After all, it is these people who have supported and allowed the multinational companies to pollute Louisiana and east Texas, to perpetuate racists policies, and similar economic and legal injustices. He works on the outside of society, acting as a vigilante who has a private code of revenge. Just what constitutes this code is never completely revealed.
The evil-doers in Burke’s world range from those who seems to be bad by association (mobsters) to those who are true sociopaths, like those who would crucify a person or mutilate a young woman. Burke’s cast of evil characters is not, as Van Dover and Jebb suggest, merely bad by association. The killers who shotgun his wife to death in her bed (Heaven’s Prisoners, 133-136) are not committing murder by association. The shotgun blasts are real; the blood-splattered bedroom is horrifying. The aftermath of the tragedy that goes to the core of Dave’s being is nearly devasting.
The need for action
But Dave does do violent things. He goes after mobsters and villains of one stripe or other. He punches, smashes with pool cues, and carries and uses his trusty .45 caliber automatic. Significantly Dave doesn’t use the .32 semi-automatic Walther of a James Bond. He even foregoes the .38 Special choice of Matt Scudder. The .45 caliber semi-auto is a brute of a handgun with awesome stopping power. It signifies his trump card: violence. Cool observation and calculation is not Dave’s game.
The major point here is that both Robicheaux and Scudder are not traditional detectives who employ the powers of ratiocination. While both solve crimes in the technical sense, both are more interesting in making a point against those they deem to be responsible for greater evils. Dave realizes that he isn’t going to take down the Mafia, correct the political system, or prevent polluters from further destroying his beloved bayous. But he does his part. He and his outright violent partner Clete Purcel wish to "shake their tree" or "scramble their eggs." Whether they do this as law officers or operate "under the black flag" makes little difference; they will do what they see as right. Therefore, the charge of moral ambiguity stands. Yet, underneath this indeterminate code is a moral stand. The evil Dave and Clete encounter is an affront to a higher moral order that they believe to have seen in an earlier Cajun culture, one more in alignment with the natural beauty that surrounded the communities in with they were reared. But their code is compounded by their positions as outsiders. They wish to protect something that the very community does not perceive as worth saving.
Matt Scudder has a similar situation, perhaps not immediately apparent. Equally an outsider, if not more so, Scudder pursues the evil-doers ostensibly as "favors"for others. His approach is less rooted in a sense of community. His cause isn’t avenging a wronged New York, whereas Dave seeks to work out some hostility against a world that has desecrated his beloved natural world of southern Louisiana. New York has always been, well, New York. While Matt is in a sense a true New Yorker, enjoying his urban world, he seeks out the bad guys who appear to be agents of evil, acting against the social order. Again, the sense of community and family is not as it is with Burke, but there is the sense of outrage and a concomitant need take action. Perhaps this will be Will, the vigilante in Even the Wicked, or the evil pseudo-Nietzschean recreational killers of A Dance at the Slaughterhouse.
Enlightening episodes: Common experiences
A Dance at the Slaughterhouse is a good example of Matt Scudder acting in the fashion of Dave Robicheaux, both for similarly inexplicable reasons. The plot of A Dance… involves Matt establishing that Bergen and Olga Stettner were responsible for multiple sex-related murders and in particular the sadistic murder of a young boy that was actually recorded, a "snuff" film. The novel deals with the seedy underground of pornography and sexual deviation perhaps more than any Scudder or Robicheaux work, although both men come close to similar situations.
A Dance… ends with Matt Scudder meeting with the Stettner's, ostensibly to collect money in a blackmail scheme---where Matt is the recipient of the cash. The setting is a large now-deserted athletic arena in an unpopulated section of the Queens. Sensibly anticipating violence, Matt enlists the help of his unlikely pal Mick Ballou, the Irish criminal who has his hand in any number of criminal enterprises, all somehow couched in a way by Block to make them seem not quite as terrible as they might be. After all Mick has a jovial Irish side, drinks a lot of good Irish whisky, and goes to Mass. But the violence at the ending of A Dance… matches anything in Burke. And the conclusion gives us an insight as to the motivation of both men, as alcoholics as well as detectives. .
Mick Ballou, a curious friend, one Matt’s AA sponsor and friends question, reportedly at one time righted a wrong by beheading a man and carrying his head around in a bag, showing what would become of his enemies. Wearing his butcher’s apron during the commission of his crimes became his trademark, hearkening back to his father's occupation and somehow constituting a nostalgic and quaint tie to the Old Sod. Headquarted at Grogan's bar, Mick and his gang help Matt prepare for the meeting with Bergen and Olga. The outcome is exceptionally bloody,
Mick Ballou uses a meat clever to kill Bergen. Matt, armed with a .38 Special revolver, coolly shoots Olga, a temptress to him as well as sado-masochistic thrill killer. His killing of her is significant given his almost premeditated manner: calm, cool, and deliberate. Surely Mick or one of the gang would have dispatched her, but Matt wanted to do the honors. He wanted revenge for the deaths of the young boy in the snuff film as well as the other murders they have committed---and possibly for something else. Perhaps it was the temptation they represented, the way they revealed his weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Block is careful to let us know that Olga did physically arouse Matt.
"I swung the Smith around. I didn’t hesitate. I squeezed the trigger, and the gun bucked in my hand…. The first shot was rushed, and wide of the mark. It took her in the right shoulder. I tucked my elbow in against my ribs and followed with a second shot, and a third. Both entered the center of her chest, between the rouged breasts. The light was gone from her eyes before she hit the floor" (A Dance…,280-281).
The temptation to regard Robicheaux/Burke as more violent than Scudder/Block can be offset by A Dance… in itself. But the book more significantly reveals how Matt needs to commit this act, despite his urbane trappings in an urban environment. The exotic environment of Robicheaux seems to bring about a type of violent mental state that would miss Scudder, but it does not. Robicheaux has the excuse, so to speak, of living in the bayous, surrounded by exotic characters and a flora and fauna that seems to exude lawlessness, a wild primordial reality. The oppressive heat, the dense humidity, the swamps alive with insects, reptiles, and nutria all contribute to the atmosphere. Yet, Scudder, in an area so different from the bayous that it is difficult to imagine that they are in the same country, shares an occasional evening with Mick Ballou, a genial butcher and Irish mobster.
As recovered alcoholics in the AA program, both men are damned to find meaning in their actions. Their very survival depends upon their participation in the twelve-steps; they know this and accept it. And as a part of this program, this fellowship, they cannot hide from their actions and the consequences. The are doomed to live and work under the banner of AA's honesty principle. The group meetings are designed to probe motivation, to examine character flaws, to unearth phoniness, pretense, and affectation.
Matt knows that he is in trouble as a result of his killing Olga, even though there are no legal repercussions The gang escapes the law, as the reader knows it would. However, the problem remains because Matt must consider the consequences in terms of his own self-honesty. Later, Matt and Mick Ballou attend a morning Mass; sitting in the church "breathing in a mixed scent of blood and cordite, I was seeing the blood spurt, I was feeling a gun back in my hand" (A Dance…, 284). A strange feeling overcomes Matt and he approaches the rail and takes
Communion. Shortly afterwards Mick asks Matt how he is feeling. Matt answers "How do I feel? I don’t know how I feel. I’m an alcoholic. I never know how I feel" (288).
But Matt does. As a recovering (or "recovered") alcoholic, he has recaptured his ability to feel. Not being anesthetized, he can face his life and his emotions. He reflects at length on why he felt he had to kill Olga Stettner. We learn that it was basically an act of vigilantism. But when Mick asks if he could "make a habit of it," Matt states "I don’t think I’ll ever do it again. But I never though I would do it at all"(289). Matt admits that he had no personal hatred for the Stettner’s. In fact he knew that Olga could get him aroused and that Bergen "was quite charming." Matt states that it looked like the Stettner’s were "getting away with it." He had to act. Mick reads Matt’s mind and adds that he thought "God’s in deep shit…unless He’s got me to help Him out." Thus Matt kills Olga.
A Higher Power
Both Matt and Dave aren’t content to let their Higher Powers work things out in the universe. They are condemned to action, their own brand of violent action, each man playing it out in his locale. Mick reminds Matt that Rabelais referred to the creative force in the Universe as the Great Perhaps. "You didn’t figure the Great Perhaps was equal to the task confronting Him, so it was up to you to take over" (A Dance…291). But Matt denies this sort of hubris and states that he thought he could "turn it over," as AA’s are instructed to do. He thought that he could get out of the driver’s seat and let God’s will prevail. Matt emphatically states that he has doubts concerning the Divine but knows for sure that he, Matt, is not God [my Italics]. "And one thing I always know for sure---whether or not there’s a God, I’m not it"(A Dance…,291). Matt, in other words, isn’t appropriating God’s power. He knows that he isn’t God; he isn’t the center of the universe.
Matt’s only reason for killing Olga was "Because I just plain wanted them dead….And I just flat out wanted to be the sonofabitch who did it to them" (A Dance… 291). Matt falls away from the program, away from reasoned thought. His reaction is pure revenge, a pure emotion, a controlled rage. There is simply no more to say.
In The Neon Rain Dave Robicheaux has a similar experience. Despite cynical promises to his superiors to not seek personal revenge on the mobster Didi Gee, he plans to do just that. He reflects:
"No. I wasn’t out of control. It wasn’t whisky or an adrenaline surge like it that was loose in my system. I simply had to set some things right." He decides that reason isn’t his strong suit: "Reason is a word I always associated with bureaucrats, paper shufflers, and people who formed committees that were never intended to solve anything. I don’t mean to be hard….I was never good at complexities…" (The Neon Rain, 263).
Dave decides that he can only do his best, and that means his taking action----violent action. He reflects on honor: "…maybe I’m simply talking about honor. I could not define it in myself, but I recognized it when I saw it in others, and I was convinced that as a virtue it had little to do with being reasonable." Dave proceeds to beat the daylights out of Didi Gee and a few of his bodyguards.
James Lee Burke speaks of Dave Robicheaux as an Everyman in the medieval morality play. "He possesses the virtues of the tragic hero---courage and humility---and he tries to give voice to those who have none. But he also has the tragic flaws of the Elizabethan and Greek protagonist in classical tragedy." Despite Van Dover and Jebb’s contention that Dave does not represent the powerless, Burke pretty mush asserts that the opposite is true. But it is difficult to see Dave as anything but distanced from society, including the common man. If not, he would be a cardboard character ---more truly a medieval morality play figure. Rather he has dimensions, mixed and shifting feelings. His violent tendencies overtake him; he is brash and seemingly impetuous.
Despite these tendencies, Dave Robicheaux is informed in an oblique way by his sense of what is right and proper. Perhaps it is his AA program that draws him to a center of honesty. Thus, when he declares that he is acting on honor rather than reason, at least he is thinking about the moral dichotomy he has created. For this reason it is more proper to think of Dave as an outsider, one who is distanced from society but not alienated from it. He relates to the world, both the social world and the natural world. It is the injustices that he perceives that cause him to rear back, judge, and act in the way that is decidedly his own.
In a personal telephone interview with this author, James Lee Burke commented upon several aspects of the evil in Dave’s world. One aspect is that evil, true evil, is seldom seen in the small crooks, pimps, and hoodlums Dave encounters. The truly evil, people such as slumlords, are those "who leave behind the scorched earth." These people work evil into the fabric of society and we unwittingly follow them. They seek to "erase God’s fingerprint from their soul." Many of the seemingly evil people in Dave’s world are mere instruments of the truly evil forces that have invaded their lives. They do wrong, but aren’t very smart. Burke said, "Many of the characters in my books break into jails, not out."
Burke states that Dave’s violence is a moral failure and he knows it. As elsewhere in published interviews, Burke affirmed that "violence is the ultimate failure." But Dave is caught, stuck with his own hard wiring. If there is virtue in this it is his awareness of his own propensities. According to Burke, "the central epistemology of the book is that Dave sees evil where others don’t." He is a cop, whether in uniform or as a detective with New Iberia or the First District of the NOPD. The same could be said for Matt Scudder. A conclusion can be that each of these men is a cop in some basic and constitutional way. They are judges in that they see evil and must react. Letting it go, "turning it over," and similar passive acts, however couched in terms of virtue—or the AA program---are too difficult, if not impossible for these men. They are men who enjoy the game of cops and robbers. The excitement of the chase and the life that it generates sustains them. They need the perverse structure that is the game of survival when facing malevolent forces. Perhaps this is a harsh indictment, but it is doubtful that serenity can never come to the sober sleuths.
James Lee Burke, in the personal interview just mentioned, was asked this question: Does or can Dave ever achieve serenity? Burke stated that we, and Dave, have to achieve serenity in our everyday lives, such as Dave found in his family, in the community, in the bait shop with his helper Batist, and even Clete. But Burke added, "The field is never ours. It’s always the first inning." (This was a quote from Dave in one of the books.)
This author concludes that Dave and Matt are two men who will never achieve serenity as long as they are the characters we the readers are interested in. Let us pause and realize that we are discussing fiction. But in terms of the analysis at hand, the two men are agitated; they are morally alive and constantly assessing the world in terms of rights and wrongs. In this sense they are violating the AA program by "taking other people’s inventory." (This is a reference to the fourth step of AA’s twelve steps.) But they are themselves.
The typical epilogue of a Dave Robicheaux novel involves the peace of the natural landscape, the bait shop and boathouse, the bayou, the Southern evenings. For Matt it might involve a trip with Elaine. Significantly it is this domestic backdrop that provides an escape for the two sober detectives. Annie, later Bootsie, for Dave, and Elaine for Matt---the angels for troubled sleuths.
These two most intriguing characters are struggling souls. As members of the AA program, they are involved in a constant battle for survival. Each has a moment of respite at AA meetings, a still point in their troubled universes. It is then perhaps that they get a glimpse of the promise: "We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace." Perhaps.
APPENDIX: A LIST OF PRIMARY WORKS CITED BY PAGE
A Dance at the Slaughterhouse. NewYork: Avon, 1992.
Even the Wicked. New York: William Morrow, 1997.
Everybody Dies. New York: William Morrow, 1998.
In the Midst of Death. 1976. New York: Avon, 1992.
The Sins of the Father. 1976. Arlington Heights, IL.: Dark Harvest, 1992.
When the Sacred Ginmill Closes. New York: Arbor House, 1986.
James Lee Burke
A Morning for Flamingos. 1990. New York: Avon, 1991.
Black Cherry Blues. 1989. New York: Avon, 1990.
Heaven’s Prisoners. New York: Henry Holt, 1988.
Sunset Limited. New York: Doubleday, 1998.
The Neon Rain. 1987. New York: Pocket Books, 1988.
ENDNOTES1. Lawrence Block Bookstore, http://victorian.fortunecity.com/campden/845/lawrenceblock1.htm, June 21, 1999, 2-3. This site is the source of much of my Lawrence Block biographical information.
Lawrence Block: Bibliography of Matthew Scudder Novels
In the Midst of Death (1976)
Time to Murder and Create (1977)
Sins of the Father (1976)
A Stab in the Dark (1981)
Eight Million Ways to Die (1982)
When the Sacred Ginmill Closes (1986)
Out on the Cutting Edge (1989)
A Ticket to the Boneyard (1990)
A Dance at the Slaughterhouse (1991)
A Walk Among the Tombstones (1992)
The Devil Knows You’re Dead (1993)
A Long Line of Dead Men (1994)
Even the Wicked (1997)
Everybody Dies (1998)
James Lee Burke: Bibliography of Dave Robicheaux Novels
The Neon Rain (1987)
Heaven’s Prisoners (1988)
Black Cherry Blues (1989)
A Morning for Flamingos (1990)
A Stained White Radiance (1992)
In the Electric Mist with the Confederate Dead (1993)
Dixie City Jam (1994)
Burning Angel (1995)
Cadillac Jukebox (1996)
Sunset Limited (1998)