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by Lawrence Block
Orion, April 2005
304 pages
ISBN: 0752859846

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

ALL THE FLOWERS ARE DYING is Laurence Block's latest Matt Scudder noir mystery, and the hardboiled, now-sexagenarian former alcoholic is still living in New York with his wife Elaine and going to Alcoholics Anonymous regularly. Elaine's friend Monica's serial seduction of disreputable married men come to a close when she is murdered by a lover -- who is also out to get Elaine and her husband.

Many elements of ALL THE FLOWERS ARE DYING are impressive, such as the detailed description of the Scudders' lives in New York City, Block's total demolition of the strongest arguments in favour of American states keeping the death penalty, and the interesting cast of supporting characters, many of whom apparently appeared previously in other Scudder mysteries and seem to have sorted their problems out since. This book was my introduction to Block's writing, though I am familiar with the Scudder legend. I found the recaps necessary, but they might bore seasoned Scudder fans.

While the idea is that the Continental Op-style hard-drinking detective is now recovering from his alcoholism and watching his coffee intake, some details of Scudder's world seem a bit dated. For example, Elaine Scudder was once a prostitute: a working girl, to use the term that she and her husband routinely do. In an era when it was considered ideal for women to avoid paid work in any profession if they could afford to be kept (presumably, by husbands) instead, this term might have been common parlance. In twenty-first-century New York City, it's ridiculous. I can understand Scudder using the term, but am not convinced that the younger Elaine would.

The major female characters in general were rather weak. Elaine seems a rehash of the old stock types of the hooker with the heart of gold and the damsel in need of protection, though her resistance to being cloistered and guarded forms a crucial part of the plot. The other principal girls are dysfunctional Sex In The City types with serious communication problems and not much other than one-off sex going on in their lives.

Ultimately, ALL THE FLOWERS ARE DYING is more of a thriller than a mystery. Interspersed with Scudder's narrative is the stream-of-consciousness of the seriously deranged killer. A quick-change artist, crafty identity thief, sadist, rapist, pedophile, and murderer of more people than he can count, this character delivers himself of truly nauseating waves of narration, letting the reader know what he's up to before Scudder and Elaine can find out. Some of these passages are not for the easily traumatised. The decision to print these passages completely in italics is far from unique in the genre, but makes the words unnecessarily difficult to read.

By intermittently referencing the 9-11 attacks, Block provocatively contrasts the foreign terrorists on the news with his superficially banal villain, whose own neighbours tend to find him so ordinary as to be forgettable. Block manages to convey the dreadful dramatic irony of this contrast without delivering any polemics on the banality of evil. This is what makes the book most frightening.

The ending is not completely upbeat: it's bittersweet and perhaps more real for that. The characters survive, but not unscathed. Like the emptiness outside their apartment window where the Twin Towers used to be, the less-than-neat ending communicates that the survivors must still struggle with the trauma of remembering.

Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, April 2005

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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