Friday, May 23, 2008

The Book You Have to Read: “When the Sacred Ginmill Closes” by Lawrence Block

And so we’ve had another night
of poetry and poses,
and each man knows he’ll be alone
when the sacred ginmill closes.
-- Dave Van Ronk

Ginmill was the sixth Matt Scudder book and the first one I ever read. I've since become as big a Block enthusiast as anyone else in their right mind, but something about this sad and beautiful baby still holds my heart. To think that any crime fiction lover might have missed it in the glare of more publicized Blocks is, quite literally, unthinkable.

Maybe it was the title, from a Dave Van Ronk song (Last Call) which I actually heard Van Ronk sing in some smoky Greenwich Village club. I don't think it was the booze (I'm Jewish, and a 5706 Manichewitz was a great year for my Mom and Dad). But the bars I didn't dare walk into became in my mind Gentile temples of pleasure and temptation as Scudder moved from Armstrong's to Miss Kitty's (not named after the lady on Gunsmoke) to Morrissey's, where the bad luck and trouble began.

And I was absolutely knocked over by Block's ability to tell in 1986 (looking incredibly youthful and wise on the book jacket) a story that happened in 1975, when Scudder was still drinking, without dropping in a flashback or missing a beat. A scene where Matt tries to remember anything else important that happened in 1975 and can come up with only a fistful of sports highlights might just leave you breathless.

If you haven't read Ginmill, it starts with Scudder drinking at an afterhours bar called Morrissey's (“The legal closing hour for bars in the city of New York is 4:00 a.m., but Morrissey's was an illegal establishment and was thus not bound by regulations of that sort”) when two masked gunmen break in, holding a gun on one of the Morrissey brothers. The other gunman turns his pistol on the older brother, Tim Pat, as they proceed to rob the place – cashbox on the counter, another box in a safe, even a collection jar for IRA loyalists.

The gunmen escape with their loot, Tim Pat consults with his brother, then makes a speech to the trembling patrons (ex-cop Scudder never carries a gun) about how the whole thing was just a joke. Nobody believes it. Tim Pat later asks Matt to look into the robbery – sucking in the always broke unlicensed private eye with a handsome offer. Two more clients – friends met in bars -- rapidly line up to pay for Scudder's services in matters of murder and blackmail.

The mood of the book is as boozy and dark as its settings, but I'd forgotten how Block could slide in a guffaw from time to time without overloading the boat.

“She looked at me sharply. 'You a cop?'
'I used to be.'
“Her laugh was loud, unexpected. 'Wha'd you get, laid off? They got no work for cops, all the crooks in jail?'”

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