Review: The Sins of the Fathers by Lawrence Block (Matthew Scudder #1)


The victim was a savagely butchered young Greenwich Village hooker. The accused killer was the homosexual youth who was her roommate. When the suspect hanged himself in his cell everybody was happy.

…except Matt Scudder. Scudder was being paid to find out the truth about the dead pair of unlikely lovebirds…no matter how many people it hurt, how many reputations it destroyed, how many seething secrets it exposed.

Matthew Scudder is an ex-cop who is now a private investigator. He won’t call himself a private investigator, because they require licenses and file tax returns and whatnot, and he doesn’t want to bother with any of that, in lieu of drinking and getting by on doing “favors” for “friends” for which he is paid under the table.

How did he get to this fallen state? A few years back, when Scudder was still on the force, two punks held up the bar Scudder was drinking at off duty, killing the bartender in the process. Scudder followed them out and shot them both, but one his bullets ricocheted and killed seven-year-old Estrellita Rivera. Scudder resigned from the force, left his family, and crawled into a bottle.

The Sins of the Fathers, as the title suggests, is entirely infused with religious themes, and while I’m no theologian, I’ll comment on this a bit. It isn’t just Scudder who’s fallen–in his universe, colors run from dark grey to black. But Scudder (and maybe the universe he inhabits) seems to draw distinctions similar to the Catholic concepts of venial and mortal sins. Some money under the table or a little infidelity, well, everyone does it. Murder, however, is a mortal sin and must be paid for in kind.

The Reverend Vanderpoel speaking to Matthew Scudder:

“Do you believe in good and evil, Mr. Scudder?

“Yes, I do.”

“Do you believe that there is such a thing as evil extant in the world?”

“I know there is.”

There are things that are absolutely evil, murder being one of them. But good luck figuring out what’s absolutely good. Most actions fall into the grey area. And I know I’m repeating myself, but in The Sins of the Fathers, the area is dark grey.

The book’s view of organized religion, personified by the Reverend Martin T. Vanderpoel, is bleak, but the bleakness is somewhat mitigated by Scudder’s insistence on tithing ten percent of his earnings to churches (he doesn’t care which) even though he’s not a religious man. The institution may be fallen, as are we all, but it does bring some solace to a deeply hurting man. There is no reconciliation of these perspectives, and perhaps there never can be.

Theologians and English majors looking for topics for essays, have at it.

Please don’t let these musings keep you away from the book. Like many great works of crime fiction, The Sins of the Fathers works on multiple levels, and one of those levels is as a 189-page paperback original, first published with an absolutely hideous cover. Mathew Scudder makes a stunning debut, or, more accurately put, Matthew Scudder makes his debut in a stunning novel.

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