The crime novels of the 1930s and 1940s were tightly focused on the crime itself, and the detective’s efforts to solve it. In Raymond Chandler’s books we learn almost nothing about his sleuth, Philip Marlowe.
But as the years rolled on, the crime novel stealthily cross-bred with the soap opera. Writers started giving their detectives more elaborate personalities and a supporting cast that didn’t change from book to book. To be sure, Conan Doyle gave Sherlock Holmes a distinct personality and a supporting cast, but the we never hear a peep about Mrs. Hudson’s personal life. She wasn’t important. A few decades later, Rex Stout gave Nero Wolfe a wisecracking assistant (Archie Goodwin), a cook (Fritz Brenner), four occasional freelance operatives (led by Saul Panzer), Archie’s occasional girlfriend (Lily Rowan), and even a seldom-seen orchid tender (Theodore Horstmann). Not to mention the reliable newspaper man (Lon Cohen) and no less than three heavy-handed policemen (Lieutenant Cramer, Sergeant Stebbins, and Sergeant Rowcliff).
Still, the crime stories in most of Stout’s books were at least passable, and some were quite good. I got to thinking about this last night after re-reading Lawrence Block’s The Devil Knows You’re Dead. I had read it years ago, but had forgotten the plot. I now realize it was the book that made me lose interest in Block.
The book is heavily laden with soap opera. The detective, Matt Scudder, goes to a lot of AA meetings, and we learn bits about what the speakers said at those meetings. Scudder also meets with his AA sponsor, so we get nuggets of AA wisdom and even a couple of AA jokes. You could do worse in the cracker-barrel wisdom department. I’m not knocking it, I’m just saying it has nothing to do with the crime story.
He starts cheating on his girlfriend, for no very clear reason other than that he can. He has a friend who is dying of pancreatic cancer and wants a gun so she can kill herself when the pain gets too bad, so he gets her a gun. At the very end of the book he proposes to his girlfriend, but he’s still thinking about the other woman. His streetwise young friend, TJ, finds a witness to the murder, and the witness happens to be a transsexual hooker, so there’s a certain amount of byplay about transsexuals. Several pages are devoted to an entirely unrelated case, in which Scudder is protecting a woman against an abusive former boyfriend.
Meanwhile, the main crime story is a dud. It’s a complete non-starter. A guy is gunned down at a streetcorner phone booth. The police arrest a homeless man, but establishing the innocence of the homeless man is not a priority, because he’s quickly stabbed to death in jail by another crazed inmate. It occurs to Scudder that this might have been a related crime — killing the hit-man so he won’t talk — but it isn’t. It’s just a bit of random New York violence.
The beautiful young widow soon discovers a strongbox in her husband’s closet that contains quite a lot of cash, so Scudder starts trying to figure out where the guy got the money. Was he a criminal? A dope dealer? No. Eventually it turns out he was an informant for the IRS and the DEA. I find it surprising that an informant would have been able to amass quite so much money, but that’s a detail.
It would be natural to suppose that somebody gunned the guy down because they didn’t like him ratting them out to the IRS … but Scudder never investigates that angle at all. Instead, he learns, quite by accident, that the killing was a case of mistaken identity! A pimp thought the guy was a rival pimp, because he looked sort of like the rival pimp, and it was night-time, and he was in a neighborhood where hookers stroll. The end.
I’ll put up with a fair amount of soap opera if the crime story is solid. But Block should have called this book The Reader Knows You’re Bored.