When the Sacred Ginmill Closes

Posted: April 23, 2022 in Book reviews

By Lawrence Block

Ex-cop come unlicensed private eye Matt Scudder is out drinking, he’s always out drinking, but on this particular night he’s at an after hours drinking establishment called Morrisey’s, run by Irishmen with links to the IRA. When two gunmen stick up the join the owners hand over the cash without a fuss, but later they ask Matt to help them track down the culprits. Matt refuses, but soon finds himself working several other cases. One of his drinking buddies, Skip who co-owns one of the many bars Matt frequents, has his clean set of books stolen and is now being blackmailed for their return, meanwhile a drinking acquaintance named Tommy is arrested for the murder of his wife and his lawyer hires Matt to dig into the killers.

Matt takes on both cases, though he isn’t confident he can be much help in either one. What’s for sure is that he’ll walk a lot of miles, talk to a lot of people and drink a whole lot of booze before he comes to realise that certain events are more closely tied together than he might have imagined.

As I’ve intimated before, this is one of the first, maybe even the first, Matt Scudder novel I ever read thirty odd years ago. This book, along with Eight Million Ways to Die, which preceded it, marked a shift in the Scudder novels (in fact Block had intended Eight Million Ways to Die to be the last Scudder novel, instead he talked himself into writing a short story to finish Scudder’s story off and liked it so much that he turned it into this novel and he liked that so much that he wrote a whole heap more novels!).

The big shift is that this novel is clearly being told in flashback by a now sober Scudder, ten years in the future. Hence it’s gritty 70s setting and the fact Matt is still drinking like a fish. Now I’ll be honest, reading the opening chapter and I did struggle a bit, I think it’s because Block introduces so many characters all at once, but soon the story settles down and it’s a doozey. A robbery, a blackmail plot and a murder, and Scudder is embroiled in all three. More than this though, it’s a meditation of drinking. Scudder isn’t the only character who drinks to excess, there’ Skip for starters, and others too, and even as Scudder trudges the mean streets of New York booze is never far from his thoughts or his actions and there’s a horrible inevitability to his life, and the lives of those around him that’s really quite poignant. It’s incredible to think Block almost cut the character loose right before he became so much more interesting.

As always Block’s prose is fantastic, and the cast of characters he creates is incredible. Even people who wander into a single scene seem fully formed. As for the mysteries, as is usually the case Scudder solves the crimes not through some Holmesian deductive reasoning, but via solid detective work, asking questions over and over again until something shifts, and the ending, though kinda depressing in a lot of ways, is also incredibly satisfying.

As a final point, you have to love the title, taken from a song by American folk singer Dave Van Ronk. Not only is it an incredible poetic line on its own, but taken in context with the rest of the song’s lyrics it serves as a philosophical theme for the whole book, especially the scene were Scudder and another character listen to the song (and relisten to it) while drinking another night away.

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

Anyway, an excellent book and highly recommended.

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