Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Lawrence Block has earned well-deserved praise for decades as the author of two well-known New-York-based crime series, the best known of which is his Matthew Scudder series. Block has had a lot of influence within the genre and was recognised in 1993 as a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America. This feature can only be improved by including some of his work, so let’s do that today. Let’s turn the spotlight on the first of Block’s Matthew Scudder novels The Sins of the Fathers.
The novel begins when former NYPD cop Scudder is approached by successful wholesale drug company executive Cale Hanniford. Hanniford’s twenty-four-year-old daughter Wendy has been brutally murdered and Hanniford wants to know why she was killed. At first Scudder doesn’t know how he can help. The police have already arrested Wendy’s room-mate twenty-one-year-old Richard Vanderpoel for the crime, and the case seems quite straightforward. Vanderpoel had the victim’s blood on him, and he can’t give a satisfactory alibi for the time of the crime. But it turns out that Hanniford isn’t really as interested in Wendy’s death as he is in Wendy’s life. The two had become estranged and he wants to know the sort of person she became and what led to her death. At first Scudder demurs, saying that he’s not a licensed private detective. As he puts it,
‘Private detectives are licensed. They tap telephones and follow people. They fill out forms, they keep records, all of that. I don’t do those things. Sometimes I do favors for people. They give me gifts.’
But Hanniford agrees to Scudder’s unconventional way of doing things and Scudder begins to ask questions.
One of the first things he does is interview Richard Vanderpoel. He’s able to use his connections to see the young man, but he can’t get much useful information. Vanderpoel seems to be either drugged or in some mentally ill state and can’t give a satisfactory explanation for what happened on the day of the murder. From what he does say though, Scudder begins to wonder if the case is as clear-cut as it seems on the surface. Then unexpectedly Richard Vanderpoel commits suicide. The police are inclined to consider the whole matter closed but Scudder wants to honour the commitment he made to Hanniford. Besides, he’s beginning to get curious too as to Wendy Hanniford’s story. She slowly starts to become real to him.
Scudder follows the trail of Wendy’s life from the time she left home to go to university to the day of her death. He also looks into Richard Vanderpoel’s life and traces both of them to the point where they met and decided to be room-mates. It’s in their history that Scudder finds the real explanation for why and by whom Wendy Hanniford was really killed and how and why Richard Vanderpoel was involved at all. In the end we learn that this murder and suicide have their roots in both young people’s pasts.
This novel does have an element of the whodunit in the sense that the solution to the murder isn’t as simple as it seems. But the why of the murder is the real key. More than anything else it’s the psychology of the victim, the killer and some of the other characters that really provides the answers. Readers who prefer novels in which everything depends on alibis and other ‘surface’ clues will be disappointed. There are a few clues but really, the solution lies in what Scudder gets to know about the other characters.
That said though, we do follow Scudder as he gets and uses information to find answers. And those answers do prove helpful in solving the mystery. This novel was published in 1976, before the days of the Internet and easy access to global databases. So for Scudder the task of tracing Wendy’s life is not easy. But we get a look at how a PI got the job done before the advent of computers.
Another important element in this novel is Matthew Scudder himself. He has in some ways a very sad history. He left the NYPD after the accidental shooting of a young girl and he doesn’t have any interest in returning. He’s divorced and doesn’t see his children very often. He lives in a seedy rent-controlled apartment in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. But for all that, Scudder doesn’t spend his days bemoaning his fate or blaming others. He does deal with a heavy burden of guilt though, partly by his generosity to local churches and partly by a lot of drinking. Bars figure quite a lot in this novel. Yet Scudder manages to maintain a civil relationship with his ex-wife Anita; he’s not bitter about her and he does care about his sons.
Scudder is a very pragmatic person and he knows more or less how things get done. He often doesn’t use official channels; instead there’s frequently a discreet exchange of money for information or other favours. He’s also pragmatic in other ways, or perhaps realistic would be a better way to describe it. Because of that he’s not judgemental. He’s got friends and acquaintances among what you might call New York’s dregs, and he tries not to judge Wendy Hanniford, her family or Richard Vanderpoel. In fact, he’s not much of a one for making categorical statements about right and wrong in general. Here for instance is a snippet of a conversation he has with the murderer:
‘‘Ah, and what about you, Mr. Scudder? Are you a force for good or evil? I’m sure you’ve asked yourself that question.’
‘Now and then.’
‘And how do you answer it?’
Scudder is a reflective person, so he sees several sides of situations and people’s characters.
This novel takes place in New York City, and Block places the reader there in many ways, including geographically and atmospherically:
‘Bethune Street runs west from Hudson toward the river. It is narrow and residential…Number 194 was a renovated brownstone with a front door the color of Astroturf. There were five apartments, one to a floor. A sixth bell in the vestibule was marked SUPERINTENDENT.’
As the story goes on, we learn that Scudder is very familiar with the city and knows his way around most of it. As Scudder travels around the area, we do too as you might say.
The Sins of the Fathers is a psychological novel with a dose of PI work. It features some interesting characters, especially Matthew Scudder himself, and is unmistakeably set in New York City. But what’s your view? Have you read The Sins of the Fathers? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 15 October/Tuesday 16 October – Raven Black – Ann Cleeves
Monday 22 October/Tuesday 23 October – Dying to Sin – Stephen Booth
Monday 29 October/Tuesday 30 October – Blood and Groom – Jill Edmondson