All the Flowers Are Dying

by Lawrence Block

Published by William Morrow

304 pages, 2005

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Block in Bloom

Reviewed by Ali Karim


It's either remarkable and revealing, or the result of delusion, when you already have one of your "best books of the year" picked out by March. But Lawrence Block's All the Flowers Are Dying, his 16th novel starring New York City private eye Matthew Scudder (and his first since 2001's Hope to Die), isn't one of those unobtrusive works that waits patiently to be measured and appreciated against its fellows. Instead, it's a muscular zenith piece, featuring some sharp insights into the darker side of the human condition, that sprints out immediately to the front of the pack. All the Flowers Are Dying is also a bouquet of roses tossed to readers of literary mystery novels, because it's written with a flourish that shows Block as a master and commander of the English language.

Most crucially, Flowers is a culmination of plot lines, characters, ideas and moods that have been germinating over the course of Scudder's lengthy career (ever since his introduction in The Sins of the Fathers, 1976), placing the life of this tormented, alcoholic cop-turned-sleuth-for-hire in something approximating context. This is a difficult novel to review, because it could well be the closing installment of Block's popular series. But then again, it's said that the only certain thing about life is death, and Matt Scudder has cheated that for almost three decades, so who knows?

Flowers is chock-a-block with existentialism and pathos, as the reader is led along the paths of people trapped within the web of one of the most horrifically detailed psychopaths who's ever smeared himself between the covers of a book. The story opens with an interchange -- so typical in the Scudder series -- that evokes the small-town nature of New York City and illuminates some of the places that tourists often fail to explore. The scene finds Scudder meeting with an ex-cop pal at Jake's Place, an unprepossessing Manhattan eatery previously owned by someone he'd known. Scudder begins:

"I had a history with the place before it was [Jake's]."

"Jimmy Armstrong's."

"That's right."

"He died, didn't he? Was that before or after 9/11?"

That's our watershed; everything in our lives is before or after that date. "After," I said, "by five or six months. He left the place to a nephew, who tried running it for a few months and then decided it wasn't the life he wanted for himself. So I guess he sold it to Jake, whoever Jake is."

"Whoever Jake is," he said, "he puts a good meal on the table. You know what they've got here? You can get an Irish breakfast all day long."

"What's that, a cigarette and a six-pack?"

"Very funny. You must know what an Irish breakfast is, a sophisticated guy like yourself."

I nodded. "It's the cardiac special, right? Bacon and eggs and sausage."

"And grilled tomato."

"Ah, health food."

Even from the distance of the printed page, you can smell the aroma of coffee when Scudder talks to his cronies in the various bars they frequent, and you know that the early interactions here will eventually feature in a complex plot. But how they will feature remains a mystery until much, much later. The opening section of Flowers brings to mind an earlier Scudder tale, When the Scared Ginmill Closes (1986), with its cadre of men sipping their drinks and lives away in one watering hole after another. This isn't a retro excursion into the past, however. The terrorist-caused elimination of the World Trade Center from Manhattan's bristling skyline (dealt with so sensitively in the standalone Small Town, one of January's favorite books of 2003) flavors this new novel's atmosphere, giving it a melancholic and somber cast. The world doesn't seem quite right without those cloud-reflecting twin towers. And perhaps Block has reached an age (he'll be 67 in June) where he finds it challenging to see things optimistically through Scudder's eyes. Not that this protagonist's world was ever far from darkness, but in this remarkable book it is at its most sinister, indeed.

Before very long, though, we realize that things aren't all that well in the world outside of Gotham, either. At a Virginia correctional center, enigmatic psychologist Dr. Arne Bodinson, from Yale University, visits death-row inmate Preston Applewhite, a pedophile who was convicted of murdering three youths. Bodinson wants help in finding the last resting place of one of Applewhite's victims, a tyke who was raped, tortured and murdered. The encounters between doctor and prisoner are unsettling, as Applewhite continues to insist that he's innocent, and Bodinson probes for the truth. Things are obviously not what they seem, as Applewhite and Bodinson begin to form a relationship of sorts in the shadow of a pending lethal injection. Somehow, this relationship will lead to terrible consequences for Scudder and his friends, but the extent of those consequences isn't so obvious. One of the themes of this book is the relationship between time and the folks with whom we choose to share it. Applewhite's association with Bodinson, then, serves almost as the novel in microcosm -- two people thrown together by circumstance, neither of them knowing what events their relationship will precipitate.

As Block shifts attention back to Manhattan, we find Scudder still attending his Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and renewing links with friends and acquaintances. One such casual comrade is Louise, a lonely woman in her late 30s who tells our hero that she has at last met a man on the Internet, David Thompson, with whom she hopes to share her life. But first, she wants Scudder to check him out, just to make sure he has no shadows in his past. Scudder takes this case on only reluctantly, soliciting help from his perpetually mysterious but brainy sidekick, TJ ("He's a black man in his twenties -- I don't know his exact age, but then I still don't know his last name, for all that he's a virtual member of the family"), who manages to pry himself away from stock market day-trading long enough to help track down Thompson.

Meanwhile, Scudder's wife, Elaine (who he met when she was a young call-girl and he was still a married member of "New York's finest"), is enjoying life running her antiques shop and meeting with friends. But her pal Monica is in a situation similar to Louise's. She has finally found a man who can satisfy her complex needs; but he's also, incidentally, far from what she expected. Maybe Scudder should have probed his background, too. If he had, he'd have found that this second mystery man is someone who lives and works under the rocks of our society. He is a dangerous man, a man without a conscience, a man with a history that weighs menacingly on the present. It doesn't take long for Flowers to be infected by torture and death, and for Scudder, Elaine and TJ to realize that someone has thrown a noose around them -- and is reeling them in.

Under siege and under pressure, Matt Scudder soon makes connections between Monica's new beau and the men called Applewhite and Bodinson, from Virginia. Fans of this series will recognize connections, as well, between events here and the unresolved slayings left over from Hope to Die. There appears to be a serial killer traversing time and people, and Scudder realizes that the past has caught up with him at last, and the life he created from the vacuum of his alcoholism is under threat. As friends start to perish all around him, the harder he tries to cling to what really matters, the tighter grows the noose. Scudder knew that life was far from a bed of roses, but now he sees that even the few roses he smelled around him are dying.

The yarn that blooms in All the Flowers Are Dying is terrifying; it really makes your skin crawl. Yet at the same time, the prolific Block -- a multiple award winner and Mystery Writers of America Grand Master -- delivers an engrossing, uncompromising look at human existence, and how deeply the death of friends impacts our lives. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this novel is that, despite its wrapping up the closing years of a series, it can be read easily as a standalone, since it ties together so many of the strands that have formed the six-plus decades of Matt Scudder's life in a neat black bow.

Other novels waiting to be published in 2005 will have a tough time, indeed, displacing Flowers from my "best of the year" list. | March 2005


Ali Karim is an industrial chemist, freelance journalist and book reviewer living in England. In addition to being a regular January Magazine contributor, he's also the assistant editor of the e-zine Shots, writes for Deadly Pleasures magazine and is an associate member of the British Crime Writers Association. Karim is currently working on a novel.