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Onyx reviews: Hope to Die by Lawrence Block

Few fictional characters have gone through as impressive a development arc as Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder. He abandoned the police department and his family to become a private detective, practicing his new profession from his hotel room home while battling alcoholism.

Over the course of the series—Hope to Die is the fifteenth Scudder novel—he has stopped drinking, faithfully attended AA meetings, tithed to worthy causes, maintained his profession even after losing his license, gotten married and acquired a protégé.

Scudder has aged in real time in the quarter century since his first appearance. Now in his sixties, he lives in a nice West Side apartment with his wife Elaine, a former prostitute, and attends classical music performances at the Lincoln Center. He also keeps up with Mick Ballou and other, shadier characters who have been part of his life through bad times and good.

He is drawn to the brutal murder of the Hollanders partly because he and Elaine attended the same reception the Hollanders did before the opening of the New York summer music festival. Though their paths didn't cross at the gala— Scudder isn't sure he even laid eyes on them—he is caught up by their plight. They were brutally murdered when they returned home after the concert to find burglars in their home.

The case seems to be closed when the suspected perpetrators are found dead a few days later, apparently a murder-suicide, the stolen items beside them.

The Hollanders' niece contacts Scudder through TJ, the young chameleon who has been Scudder's electronic eyes and ears for several years. She wonders if the Hollander's daughter, Kristin, might have been behind the crime, since she inherited a considerable fortune.

Scudder investigates even though he doesn't have a paying client. Several things about the crime scene and the tidy way the murder was wrapped up leads him to believe there may have been a third man involved. Not a professional killer— the crimes were too cute, too contrived for a pro—but a dangerous man all the same. Someone who orchestrated the killings for motives as yet unknown, making sure there were no loose ends. Readers get to see inside the mind of this controlled-but-deranged psychopath as the story develops.

In a parallel storyline, Scudder learns of the sudden death of his ex-wife, Anita, the mother of his two sons. Their relationship has been limited in recent years and he is virtually estranged from his now-grown sons. They treat him with kid gloves. He doesn't learn of Anita's death until the night before her funeral - they arrange things so Scudder might not be able to attend at such late notice.

Their reunion after the funeral is awkward and brief. Michael, the elder, is a responsible family man living in California. Younger Andy has yet to find his way in life. He wanders from place to place, narrowly evading serious trouble. Scudder looks for ways to reestablish contact with them, but meets with limited success.

Lawrence Block is the grand master of crime fiction. He has plotting and character development down to a science—but that's not to say his stories are formulaic. He knows how to structure his books for best effect, knows how to suck readers in and then lead them through his stories. Scudder is probably one of the best-realized modern protagonists in the genre. Readers have lived with him as he has become older, wiser and more mature, but still frail, human and flawed.

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