In a writing career that has spanned well over 30 years, 50 novels and numerous awards – including the Mystery Writers of America’s prestigious Grand Master nod – one of the main constants in Lawrence Block’s life has been Matthew Scudder. Scudder, who first appeared in 1976’s Sins of the Father, is one of Block’s, and the crime genre’s, most enduring creations. A former New York City cop who’s faced a lifelong battle with alcoholism, Scudder has appeared in 16 novels and, this May, will appear for a 17th time, in A Drop of the Hard Stuff. For the occasion, Block talked with us about why Scudder is still around, on the page and in his mind, after all these years.
Did you ever think you would be writing about Scudder this long?
No. It was about 1974 [when I invented Scudder] and I wrote three books about him—at the time Dell published them—and they were well received by the few people who got a chance to read them. But Dell was having distribution problems and they didn’t get many books out. I thought it would be the end of the series and the character. Well, I was wrong. I never expected to be writing this much, or this long, about Scudder. If someone had told me I’d spend 35 years writing the autobiographical memoir of a person who doesn’t exist, well, I would have found that a dubious notion.
Yet here you are, preparing to publish your 17th Scudder novel. Why do you think he remains such an interesting character to readers?
It’s hard for me to know. You know, I just got back from a trip to Taiwan and Beijing and Scudder is enormously popular over there. I don’t know why, except that I know a lot of readers there said they love the books because they felt they knew Matthew Scudder.
One interesting thing about Scudder, as fictional detectives go, is that he’s aged over the course of the series. Was that your intent from the beginning, to have him age over time?
I never thought about the aging, really. In the beginning I thought he would stay the same age, in the manner of most fictional detectives. I mean, after all, one way to ensure one doesn’t age is to be a hero of a crime series. But as I wrote about him – I don’t know when exactly, but around the fourth book [1981’s A Stab in the Dark] – I realized he was going to need to evolve because of the realism of the series. He couldn’t be unaffected in one book by an event in a previous book.
And Scudder is about your age now. Do you think that’s one reason you keep returning to him, as a character?
I’m sure if he hadn’t aged and his life hadn’t changed I wouldn’t have written as much about him.
In 1982’s Eight Million Ways to Die Scudder comes out and openly says he’s an alcoholic, at an AA meeting. Do you see this as a turning point for the series?
I don’t plan an awful lot in life just as I don’t plan an awful lot in my fiction. In A Stab in the Dark, the book just before Eight Million Ways to Die, there’s a plot development that forces Scudder to look at his drinking, and then in Eight Million Ways to Die he surprised me by getting sober. When I finished that book I thought the series was done, and that I’d managed to write myself out of a job. I mean, how many catharses can a person have? But then I wrote a sixth book, which was a flashback book and now, quite a few years later, I’m filling in a six-year gap in Scudder’s life with A Drop of the Hard Stuff.
Speaking of A Drop of the Hard Stuff, can you tell us a little of what we learn about Scudder in this new novel?
I realized there was this unexamined stretch of Scudder’s life, from Eight Million Ways to Die to Out on the Cutting Edge. Because those six years would have been the first years of his sobriety, I presumed it would have been an eventful part of his life. I thought about that and a plot notion came along that turned into A Drop of the Hard Stuff.
Is there anything readers will learn about Scudder in the new novel, something they have not known or discovered before?
There is some stuff about his boyhood in the new book. One thing I think readers will also like is that they will get to renew acquaintances with characters who have since died in the series, like Jim Faber and Jan Keane. Overall it was an interesting book for me to write, since it wound up being a period novel, as it takes place about 18 years ago. When you think about it, the world was a very different place back then – no Google, no cell phones, no personal computers. Interestingly different.
So do you think A Drop of the Hard Stuff is going to be your last Scudder novel?
Impossible to say.