July/august 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 4
A hot August night a decade ago found me in my stepson’s room grappling with a tough First Amendment issue. He was away for the evening, and I had entered his domain of early-adolescent squalor to retrieve a shirt he’d borrowed from me. Sloping fields of dirty laundry yielded up a carton of ossified lo mein, four hundred Grateful Dead albums—and then a cache of “adult” magazines. He knew very well he wasn’t to bring these into the house etc. etc., and I fretted about whether to confiscate them.
I started to leaf through a Playboy and immediately found a short story by Lawrence Block called “By the Dawn’s Early Light.” It featured a detective named Matthew Scudder and it seemed uncommonly well written. The plot was absorbing, but there was more to it than that. “All this happened a long time ago,” Block began, although it was set in 1975. “Abe Beame was living in Gracie Mansion, though even he seemed to have trouble believing he was really the mayor of the City of New York …”
And as I stood there in the dank bower of teen-agery, reading about another hot summer night in my city, Block took the present away from me and put it into the past. I was, I realized, reading an exercise in history: he was artfully reconstructing a time that I’d not quite understood had slipped away. So I let Geoff keep his magazines (and am happy to report they did him no lasting harm) and went looking for Lawrence Block’s books, and that in time led to the article that opens this issue.
He talks here about the history of detective fiction, but as his short story showed me quite piercingly, there is a great deal of history in detective fiction. Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles, for instance, is observed and described with such sardonic precision that his Philip Marlowe novels have actually helped form the way we perceive that city. And what more immediate way to visit a lost time than the scene from James M. Cain’s 1936 Double Indemnity in which his frenzied insurance salesman Walter Huff establishes an alibi for a murder he plans to commit? “I parked near the theatre, loafed around, and around eleven o’clock I went in. I bought a downstairs seat this time. I took a program and put it in my pocket. I checked, it had the date on it. I still had to talk with an usher, fix it on her mind what day it was, and pull something so she would remember me. . . .” What he pulls is to quickly button the top button on her uniform, undone against the heat of the night. So we have a movie theater with daily programs and ushers in uniforms, but no air conditioning. . . . Mysteries tend to be especially eloquent about the small details that make up the texture of a given era.
Certainly Lawrence Block’s are. His fond and authoritative essay has dozens of recommendations of detective stories that offer wider pleasures than the mere solution of a puzzle, but I would like to add one more to his list, and that is When the Sacred Ginmill Closes , the novel that grew from the story that saved my son’s soft-core porn collection. The book has a terrific plot, and, like all the best detective fiction, it is a moral tale; Matt Scudder never preaches, but he always watches for the gleam of old bearings through the storms of his life. And it is also a historical novel. The time is not far past, but when Block puts us in a city that is at once almost within reach and yet as remote as Knickerbocker days, he reminds us that what he calls “so many changes, eating away at the world like water dripping on a rock” are the saddest and most poetic news the historian has to share with the world.