In The Midst of Death


by Lawrence Block.

I grabbed this one off the shelf almost at random. I was looking to try one of Block’s novels, and despite the terrible title, I grabbed it.

The protagonist, Matt Scudder, is a former cop getting by as an unlicensed P.I. He’s also soon to be divorced and drinking a ton. He’s hired by a crooked cop who’s been framed for extortion and murder to look into the case and find out who really did it.

It’s good, as this type of book goes. It’s a terrific example of this specific genre–It was written in the mid-seventies, just about the end of the time you could realistically show an alcoholic wandering around without every person in his life gently pushing him toward AA. The cynical world view is there, and the text has that telltale lack of affect that signals the protagonist’s inner demons (with traces of real emotions popping up in unexpected places).

But here’s what I wanted to say about that: people often talk about urban fantasy as though it’s very noir–I often hear this about the Dresden Files, for example–but the major diff between UF and real noirish mystery is that UF is full of combat. The protagonist gets attacked in parking lots, at crime scenes, while trying to crash Mr. Big’s party, whatever. Violence. Lots of it.

Most of the noir mystery I read is not like that at all. There is, maybe, one scene of violence right at the end, and maybe one, possibly two, somewhere in the middle. Actually, there are rarely as many as two in the middle. Most of the book is just two people talking.

That’s where UF falls down in it’s attempts to be “noir”. You can be as cynical as you want, but if you’re doing the violence as much as setting it right, you’re in a different genre.

And no, I’m not sure how Mike Hammer fits into all this.

Anyway, I don’t know if anyone ever say the movie 8 Million Ways To Die, but Jeff Bridges played Matt Scudder in that one. It’s from a later book in the series, when the protag is in AA, and it was Hal Ashby’s last film. It’s also a goddam mess. Bridges is a good actor, but he was seriously miscast, and I’d heard that much of the film was improvised. It looks like it was improvised, too, since the scenes have no shape to them. It was an enormous flop at the box office, even for a P.I. mystery.

But I didn’t read Eight Million…, I read In the Midst of Death. It’s an interesting book, and very short. If you’ve wanted to dip your toe in this genre, you should try this one.

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