Thursday, January 24, 2013

STL#105: When the Sacred Ginmill Closes

This will be a brief note on Lawrence Block's When the Sacred Ginmill Closes. I mentioned last week the difficulty in writing about books I read some time ago. In this case I remember the book and my enchantment with it fairly well, but I am having trouble articulating what I found so compelling. It's hard to say if this book is a crime novel with an alcoholic protagonist, or an alcoholic novel with incidental crime. We can list the attributes of the hardboiled detective novel, what about the attributes of an alcoholic novel? The milieu would of course be a feature, and Block has a sensitive ear to barroom talk and a sharp eye for barroom ritual. The protagonist, Matthew Scudder, lives by inclination in a routinized and limited geography spanning a few blocks in Manhattan, marked mostly by bars that are gone. While the detective is an agent that cuts across boundaries and engages variety, a drinker seeks the solace of repetition and the familiar embrace of liquor. Of course, Scudder isn't really a PI, but he looks into things for friends from time to time. He lives already in a fallen state, though the novel is a curiously fond retrospective to the surviving narrator's drinking days. Though not a licensed PI, his investigative technique isn't that different from any detective in the American tradition: he walks about, going from place to relevant place, hoping for a picture to develop. The problem is that many of these journeys are to bars, and a few of them coincide with blackouts. I am fond of quoting E.M. Forester's dictum, "A mystery is a pocket in time." Even as Scudder seeks out these pockets, new ones spring up around him. His investigation then is a connection of clues and gaps.

This novel is technically part of a fairly lengthy series. Wikipedia says there are sixteen other books, but I have never looked into any others, even though I admire Block's style and sensibility. When the Sacred Ginmill Closes is such a satisfying book that I am reluctant to seek out the others, though the virtues are (as I have praised here) estimable.