A Long Line of Dead Men by Lawrence Block
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
"Every man in this room, every man ever born, spends his life approaching his death. Every day he takes another step in death's direction. It is a hard road to walk alone, a much easier road to walk in good company."
From Lawrence Block's earlier novels, particularly the memorable duo of The Sins of the Fathers and Eight Million Ways to Die, I remember Matthew Scudder, an ex-cop turned unlicensed private investigator, as a "practising" alcoholic. In A Long Line of Dead Men (1994) Mr. Scudder has already been sober for a number of years: he religiously follows the AA philosophy, attends the meetings, sometimes more than one daily, and often talks to his sponsor.
The novel seems to endorse the point of view that there are only two kinds of people: people who know they are alcoholics and therefore they do not drink and people who don't yet know that they are alcoholics. While a tad extreme, this view is not far from an astute observation of human nature. Anyway, Mr. Scudder's struggles with the episodes of alcoholic cravings that still happen despite long years of sobriety are shown realistically, which adds to the value of the novel.
The setup of the "mystery" is also first-rate. Mr. Scudder is hired by a member of an exclusive and somewhat secret society - "the club of thirty-one" or "annual celebration of mortality club," as termed by Elaine, Mr. Scudder's partner. The club - which is supposed to have a tradition of many hundred years - works on the following principle: when there is only one man left of the thirty-one members, he invites thirty "ideal candidates for membership" and brings them together to an annual meeting. The members meet once a year, the list of members who died in the past year is read, and so on, until one member remains, where the cycle repeats. Cool setup, if one that would be termed sexist nowadays: aren't women mortal too?
One of the club members has noticed that too many of his clubmates have died in the recent years, many more than statistics would indicate; he hires the detective to investigate if someone might be contributing to increasing the death rates. As a mathematician I can confirm that the discussion of statistical aspects of the setup is on the level.
The denouement is clever and elegant but not at all plausible. The weaknesses of the novel include the tired cliché of TJ, the detective's youthful helper, who is a master of getting the "word on the street." There is an awkward thread that involves Lisa (maybe the author wants to "humanize" Mr. Scudder; which seems unnecessary - his alcoholism should make him fully human). I am unable to understand the inclusion of Mick Ballou thread with its completely incongruous stories: maybe the author deleted the text from another book and is unwilling to throw it away?
Still, a captivating read that appeals to the human fascination with secret societies and historical conspiracies, and a novel that accurately describes the life of a sober alcoholic.
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