Mystery Writer Evokes The Sights, Sound And Grime Of 1970s New York

Aug 7, 2014
Originally published on August 7, 2014 8:08 am

Crime fiction writer Lawrence Block lives in New York's West Village, in a stately art deco building overlooking Abingdon Square. He bought an apartment there decades before actress Jennifer Aniston did. (She sold hers shortly thereafter.) Block is 76, silver-haired and keen-eyed; and in his pastel shirt and khakis, he looks decidedly more Hamptons than downtown.

Sitting on a park bench in Abingdon Square, Block points out a building on the corner that used to be a nursing home. Before gentrification, ambulances constantly rushed its inhabitants to St. Vincent's Hospital, sirens wailing. Now, both are multimillion-dollar condos.

"It's quieter," he observes dryly of his neighborhood. "But I liked it better before."

'The City Never Failed Me'

Block published his first Matthew Scudder novel in 1976, when the Village was grimy and New York was broke. His private detective, a beefy former police officer, will be played by Liam Neeson in a movie, out in September, that's based on the 10th of 17 Matthew Scudder mysteries.

Scudder is haunted by his accidental killing of a small girl during a street shootout when he was drinking off-duty one day. In the early books, he scans the newspaper daily, riveted by — and aghast at — the litany of awful things people did to one another.

"The town was writing that book," Block says. "The hideous crime that Scudder talked about on the next day's writing was the one I read about on the subway downtown. And, you know, the city never failed me. It always provided something."

At The Mysterious Bookshop in Tribeca, Manhattan's only mystery bookshop, Matthew Scudder is one of the most popular series and Block is one of the most popular authors. That's according to owner Otto Penzler, who credits Block with perfectly evoking 1970s New York: "The smell; the sounds; the noisiness of it; the crowdedness of it; the fear of it sometimes at night."

A Character And An Author Aging In Real Time

Today, New York is one of the safest big cities in the world. And Scudder has aged in real time: Like Block, he's now in his 70s and, also like Block, he's a recovering alcoholic. The latest Scudder mystery, from three years ago, is called A Drop of the Hard Stuff — just one of around 150 books, stories and screenplays Block has written over the course of his career.

"He was legendary for being a fast writer," Penzler says admiringly, adding that for 30 years Block was part of a regular mystery writers' poker night. One Friday, the writer showed up and someone reminded him he had a book due Monday morning.

"He said, 'Oh, I forgot. I can't play tonight,' " Penzler recalls, chuckling. "And he went home and wrote the book over the weekend."

So how did Block manage to write and drink so much? "Well, I didn't do both at the same time," he says tartly.

In fact, Block thought that when Scudder got sober in the eighth book, Eight Million Ways to Die, it might be the end of the series. "You know, how many catharses does one character get to have?" he says.

From Lesbian Erotica To A Sober P.I.

Block takes me to see the Church of St. Paul the Apostle, a Gothic pile of grayish-pink granite, more fortress than cathedral. It's where Scudder, in the early books, puts money in the poor box and lights candles for the victims of whatever crime he's working on.

"Nowadays the candles are electric," Block observes with a note of disappointment under the nave's yellow, clover-shaped ceiling. "You drop a coin in them and the light goes on. I suppose it gets the same absolute inattention [from] on high, but it just doesn't feel the same."

Leaving the church, we stop at a diner where Scudder hangs out after Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. The Flame is a New York classic, its menu thick with burgers, omelets, matzo ball soup and moussaka. Over coffee in a sturdy white diner mug, Block reflects on his first book, which he describes as "a sensitive lesbian novel."

Before Scudder, Block wrote lesbian erotica under the name Jill Emerson. While they may have been sensitive, they also had titles like Warm and Willing and belonged in the category of pulp fiction known for covers of women in lingerie silhouetted against bedrooms doors. For a while, Block disavowed those novels, but these days he's proud of them. He remembers having an off-mic conversation with Fresh Air's Terry Gross a few years ago in which she said, "But Larry, you're not actually a lesbian." His reply: "That's only an accident of birth." He even came out, so to speak, with a new erotica novel in 2011.

A Kind Of Immortality

These days, Block says he's winding down. He doubts there's another Matthew Scudder mystery in him. "It's been a lot of books," he says. "A lot of years."

And a Scudder novel today, Block adds, would mostly be about his friends dying of old age. "Who needs that? I wouldn't want to read about it. I certainly don't want to write it."

Fortunately, after so many books, Matthew Scudder has achieved a kind of immortality. And as his creator — a four-time Edgar Award-winner and a grand master of the Mystery Writers of America — Lawrence Block has, too.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It is time now for our next installment of Crime In The City, our summer profiles of crime writers and the places they write about. You know, in the eight years MORNING EDITION has been going on these literary journeys, we've never explored Manhattan - until today. This is where NPR's Neda Ulaby met up with one of the most prolific mystery writers of the past 40 years.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Lawrence Block lives in the West Village in a stately, art deco building overlooking Abingdon Square. He bought an apartment there decades before the actress Jennifer Aniston did. Block is 76, silver-haired, keen-eyed and wearing a pastel shirt and khakis. He sits on a park bench and recalls the neighborhood before gentrification, when it was filled with screaming ambulances on their way to a hospital that's now multi-million dollar condos.

LAWRENCE BLOCK: It's quieter, but I liked it better before.

ULABY: Back in 1976, when the village was grimy and New York was broke, Block wrote the first Matthew Scudder novel. Scudder is a beefy, former police officer. He's played by Liam Neeson in a new movie coming out next month.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) So you're a private detective.

LIAM NEESON: (As Scudder) I'm licensed.

ULABY: The movie, "A Walk Among The Tombstones," is based on the 10th of Block's 17 Matthew Scudder mysteries. As the main character, Neeson describes how he got kicked off the force.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES")

NEESON: (As Scudder) I was off duty one day in this bar in Washington Heights where cops didn't have to pay for their drinks.

ULABY: A couple of guys robbed the place. Scudder chased them, shot at them, but then...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES")

NEESON: (As Scudder) You see, one shot - well, a bullet took a bad hop.

ULABY: Accidentally, Scudder killed a little girl. Back in the 1970s Block says he ripped ideas for the serious crimes straight out of the headlines. Here's a quick reading from his first Scudder book, "The Sins Of The Fathers," to give you an idea.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Reading) The act of murder is performed four or five times a day New York City. One hot week last summer, the count ran to 53. People killed their friends, their relatives. A man on Long Island demonstrated karate to his older children by chopping his daughter to death. Why did people do these things?

ULABY: Back on the bench, Lawrence Block says New York made his job easy.

BLOCK: The time I was writing that book, the hideous crime that Scudder talked about in the next day's writing was the one I read about on the subway downtown. And, you know, the city never failed me. It always provided something.

ULABY: I'm pushing open the door to the basement of the mysterious bookshop in Tribeca - the only Manhattan bookstore that specializes in mysteries. Here is the lair of owner Otto Penzler, a longtime friend of Lawrence Block's.

OTTO PENZLER: Scudder is one of most popular characters in the store. And Larry Block is one of the most popular writers.

ULABY: Few writers, Penzler says, evoke so perfectly New York in the 1970s.

PENZLER: Smell, the sounds, the noisiness of it, the crowdedness of it, the fear of it sometimes at night.

ULABY: Now New York is one of the safest big cities in the world. And Scudder has aged in real time. Like Block, he's now in his 70s. Also like Block, he's a recovering alcoholic.

PENZLER: Larry was a very heavy drinker for a time, as reflected in the Scudder series.

ULABY: The Matthew Scudder series take place in New York City and recovery culture. The latest one from three years ago is called "A Drop Of The Hard Stuff," just one of the 150 books, stories and screenplays Lawrence Block's written over the course of his career.

PENZLER: He was legendary for being a fast writer.

ULABY: Otto Penzler says for 30 years, Block was part of a regular mystery writers poker night. One Friday he showed up, and someone wondered if he'd finished a book that was due that Monday morning.

PENZLER: He said, oh, I forgot. I can't play tonight. And he went home and wrote the book over the weekend.

ULABY: Back in the park, I asked Lawrence Block, how did you write and drink so much?

BLOCK: Well, I didn't do both at the same time.

ULABY: Block said when he and Scudder got sober, he thought it was the end of the series.

BLOCK: You know, how many catharses does one character get to have? I figured that was - was probably it.

ULABY: But it turned out Scudder would spend a happy and healthy 40 years solving abductions, rapes and murders.

BLOCK: Let's go up to Ninth Avenue and 57th Street.

ULABY: Lawrence Block wants to show me the church of St. Paul the Apostle.

BLOCK: Which is where, in the early books, Scudder lights candles and puts money in the poor box.

ULABY: Block himself was born into a Jewish family, but he appreciates the grandeur of Catholic churches. This one is a Gothic pile of grayish-pink granite - more fortress than cathedral.

BLOCK: Should we step inside? It says welcome. Let's see if they mean it.

ULABY: The nave is deserted. We stand under a soaring, yellow, clover-shaped ceiling. I ask Block to describe our surroundings. He's unhelpful.

BLOCK: It's just a church. It's nice, pretty.

ULABY: So what spoke to Scudder about this church?

BLOCK: It was the closest one to where he lived.

ULABY: It used to be Scudder's habit to light candles here for the victims of whatever crime he was working on and for the child he'd accidentally killed.

BLOCK: Nowadays the candles are electric; you drop a coin in, and the light goes on. I suppose it gets the same absolute inattention on high, but it just doesn't feel the same.

ULABY: When we leave the church, we pass a diner where Scudder hangs out after AA meetings.

BLOCK: This is The Flame. Are you hungry?

ULABY: There are cakes in the window.

BLOCK: Come on in.

ULABY: The Flame is a New York classic - burgers, omelets, matzo ball soup and moussaka, live plants winding around the windows, framing Ninth Avenue's hustle. Over coffee in a sturdy, white diner mug, Lawrence Block starts talking about his early literary career.

BLOCK: My first book was a sensitive lesbian novel.

ULABY: Block wrote lesbian erotica under the name Jill Emerson - pulpy novels, with covers of women in lingerie silhouetted against bedroom doors. While maybe sensitive, they had titles like "Warm And Willing." Block remembers an interviewer saying to him a few years ago...

BLOCK: You're not a lesbian. And I said that's only an accident of birth. So what can I say?

ULABY: For a while, Block disavowed these novels, but these days he's proud of them. He even wrote a new Jill Emerson book a few years ago. But generally, Block says he's winding down. He says he doubts there's another Matthew Scudder mystery in him.

Are you going to miss Scudder?

BLOCK: You mean miss writing about him? I don't know. It's been a lot of books, a lot of years.

ULABY: And a Scudder novel today, Block adds, would mostly be about his friends dying of old age.

BLOCK: Who needs that? I wouldn't want to read about it. I certainly don't want to write it.

ULABY: Fortunately, after so many books, Matthew Scudder has a kind of immortality. And as his creator, a four-time Edgar winner and a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America, Lawrence Block does, too. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.