Review: WHEN THE SACRED GINMILL CLOSES (Avon Books 1997)
Author: Lawrence Block
Lawrence Block has had a long and distinguished career as a crime novelist. He's written multiple series about different protagonists and done so in very different styles. He's written the light-hearted Bernie Rhodenbarr series of capers about an erudite burglar. He's also written the edgier stories about Evan Tanner, a man who can't sleep due to brain trauma suffered during the war. He's even done a series about a hitman named Keller.
But his most haunting and intriguing character is probably Matthew Scudder, an alcoholic ex-cop who quit the force after shooting a bullet that ricocheted and killed an innocent child. As a result, Scudder drinks too much and works as an unlicensed private eye, who earns a living by doing favors for people. (Then donates 10 percent of the proceeds to random churches, as a form of penance.)
The story starts off with a bang – literally. Scudder and a group of friends are sitting in an after-hours bar, enjoying their usual round of drinks when an explosion shakes the place. This particular explosion doesn't seem to connect with anything in particular related to the plot (which could be said of much of what happens in the book, actually).
However, the explosion seems to put the characters on edge, prompting dialogue that feels so real, it's about as close as you get to overhearing actual people talk. Soon afterward, two masked men with guns charge into the bar, rob the place and make their getaway. This robbery turns out to be one of three cases Scudder ends up investigating, the two others being a blackmail scheme against one of his friends and a murder case in which he's gathering evidence for the defense.
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