One of the most compelling features of Lawrence Block's long–running series of mysteries starring Matthew Scudder is the steady passage of time. Unlike many mystery series in which the trappings of the outside world may change from book to book, but the characters themselves are ever constant, Scudder and the other characters in Block's series age and change as a result of their life experience. Scudder himself has made a long journey from a jaded, hard–drinking ex–cop with a failed marriage on his record to a compassionate --- but not soft --- sober, semi–legitimate private investigator with a happy marriage. Joining Scudder on this journey is perhaps the central pleasure of the series.
That's not to say that the individual installments don't stand up well on their own. As HOPE TO DIE, the 15th novel in the series, amply demonstrates, Block has a talent for crafting novels that readers familiar with earlier books will enjoy but that do not leave a new reader awash in a sea of backstory. Scudder's off–hand references to earlier cases might entice a reader to pick up another novel in the series, but they are never intrusive, and the reader is never left baffled by a reference to something only long–time fans can understand.
HOPE TO DIE opens with Scudder's imagined recreation of the final evening spent by an affluent couple prior to their brutal murder. The Hollanders --- like Scudder and his wife Elaine --- attended the opening reception and concert for the Mostly Mozart series at Lincoln Center in New York City. Upon returning home, the Hollanders are killed; their apparent killers are found soon after --- dead, in what looks to be a murder/suicide. The case seems open and shut, but Scudder's young assistant TJ gets his boss to take another look. With the help of characters familiar from other cases, as well as several new faces, Scudder discovers what really happened.
Block does an excellent job setting up the reader, planting clues early in the book that make the solution appear to be disappointingly obvious. But the reader who pats him or herself on the back too soon is likely to be surprised, even though Block plays fair by including all the clues for the observant sleuth to spot. Indeed, the reader knows more than Scudder for much of the book because a portion of HOPE TO DIE is told from the murderer's perspective. This is a first for a Scudder novel, and traditionalists who like to stay with the first–person narrative may find that the passages detract from their enjoyment of the novel. However, Block handles the material extremely well, using it not just to reveal secrets to the reader but to build suspense as well.
Although Scudder and Elaine have come a long way since their appearances in the first Scudder novel, THE SINS OF THE FATHERS (readers of that book could hardly imagine either character at Lincoln Center), Block does a fine job connecting HOPE TO DIE to the earlier novels in a way that longtime fans should find emotionally satisfying. Scudder may be getting older --- he is in his early 60s in HOPE TO DIE --- but some of the same demons haunt him, and the series retains the melancholy tone that has served it so well for so long. HOPE TO DIE is also a good place to meet Scudder for the first time, which is a credit to Block's skillful writing.
Reviewed by Rob Cline (firstname.lastname@example.org) on October 16, 2001