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Onyx reviews: All the Flowers are Dying by Lawrence Block

Matt Scudder is preoccupied with mortality. The aging free-lance private investigator and former NYPD officer has reached a certain age where much of his daily news comes from the obituaries and he and his wife, the former prostitute Elaine, regularly attend the funerals of friends. The 9/11 terrorist attacks did nothing to lessen his obsession with death.

Scudder is arguably Lawrence Block’s finest creation. All the Flowers Are Dying, the 16th Scudder novel, is the first in four years, and time is starting to take its toll on his protagonist. He’s more or less retired, accepting only cases that interest him. He’s as clever as always, but not as fast as he once was, and prone to bouts of melancholia. He still attends AA meetings, though not as often as before. Scudder dried out in mid-series and his battle with his addiction has been an integral part of his character since then. Elaine maintains her curio shop, and TJ, his protégé and operative, spends his time poaching business courses at the local universities and day-trading via the internet.

In one of the book’s twin plotlines, Scudder investigates the background of a man who one of his AA acquaintances met online. She’s been dating David Thompson for a few weeks but knows almost nothing about him. The man’s bland name complicates the case, as does the lack of a tangible starting point. The only thing that seems obvious is that Thompson’s elusiveness indicates that he’s not being completely forthcoming with Scudder’s client.

In the parallel plot, a sociopath visits a man on death row in Virginia, convicted of the grizzly murders of three young boys. Presenting himself as a psychologist, the killer claims to believe in soon-to-be-executed Preston Applewhite’s innocence. For good reason: the sociopath is responsible for the deaths and went to incredible lengths to fabricate the evidence that led a jury to convict him. Astonished to find himself in this position, Applewhite has no fight left. He welcomes his visitor’s presence and even invites him to witness the execution.

This book’s structure and point of view shift is a risky maneuver on Block’s part. Heretofore, the Scudder novels have been mostly restricted to his protagonist’s first person viewpoint. Huge sections of Flowers are presented as the sociopath’s stream of consciousness.

When a friend of Elaine’s is murdered, Scudder believes that Elaine may be next. He cloisters her in their Manhattan apartment while trying to figure out who is after her, and why. Along the way, he enlists the help of a number of familiar faces from his past— retired Detective Joe Durkin, information maven Danny Boy, and Mick Ballou, the gangster who is one of Scudder’s closest friends. Many of Scudder’s familiar haunts have changed, though, another sign of the passing of time. Grogan's Bar is no longer the sacred gin mill of yore.

Block uses sleight of hand to make it seem like the two plotlines will ultimately interweave when he actually has other clever tricks to pull out of his hat. The device of the unimaginably intelligent sociopath is a little bit tired, and Block doesn’t have much new light to shed on the nature of this type of individual, assuming that they really exist and aren’t completely the creation of authors of murder mysteries. However, Block uses this clichéd character type to stress Scudder and reveal his innermost fears and concerns, and also the depth of his devotion for those around him.

In the end, readers are left wondering how much Scudder has left in him for future adventures and when he is going to join the long line of dead men who came before him.

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