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Darkness, I hardly knew thee

I was expecting to write a snide little comparative review of the new Matthew Scudder mystery, Hope to Die, and the new Jessie Stone mystery, Death in Paradise. I was probably going to throw in some comparisons between Spenser and Scudder, since they’re both aging detectives, as well. Woulda been a beauty. I’d have contrasted Lawrence Block’s gritty realistic approach to alcoholism and his honest approach to the aging of his main character with Robert Parker’s increasingly self-indulgent treatment of the same issues. I am blogger, hear me roar.

Unfortunately, while Death in Paradise wasn’t all that great, Hope to Die was kind of unimpressive as well. I believe I’ve discovered one of the signs of a mystery series on decline. When an author starts indulging in chapter intros told from the point of view of the criminal, things are getting bad. If those intros happen to be in italics, it’s worse. If they cleverly don’t ever give away the criminal’s name — well.

That was a problem with Hope to Die. The basic trappings are still pretty much there: Scudder is an alcoholic, but it isn’t the focus of the book; Elaine is a dear; T.J. continues to be an important presence. I liked the thread of family obligations that wove through the story. Scudder’s obligations to his sons were a good counter-part to the criminal’s attitudes towards certain characters.

However, the ending is deeply unsatisfying and requires us to believe that Scudder has suddenly discarded his keen intelligence. The darkness that’s integral to the Scudder mysteries comes by way of plot contrivance rather than through Block’s writing. It’s a pity. I wouldn’t say the series is dead, but I really hope the next book isn’t what I think it’ll be.

Oh — Death in Paradise is about what you’d expect from a mystery series whose author is willing to name a town Paradise for the sake of catchy titles. There is not actually a town named Paradise in Massachusetts. Just so you know.

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