The Edgar Awards Revisited: A Dance at the Slaughterhouse by Lawrence Block (Best Novel; 1992)
By Nick KolakowskiSeptember 27, 2019
Venture back to Times Square in the 90s, filled with crime, grime, and men about to do time.
Lawrence Block published A Dance at the Slaughterhouse, the ninth book featuring his iconic detective Matthew Scudder, in 1991 (it won the Edgar in 1992). It takes place in an increasingly unfamiliar world to modern readers. Scudder, a recovering alcoholic and former cop, regularly stalks the “Duce,” as they used to call the pre-gentrified stretch of 42nd Street near Times Square, in search of contacts and clues; he calls folks on pay-phones, watches tapes on a VCR, and lives in a somewhat rundown hotel.
Today, the area around Times Square is thronged with tourists and lined with chain restaurants; it bears so little resemblance to the mean streets of Block’s book that anyone unaware of New York City’s history would be tempted to think the author made it all up, or at least exaggerated the sketchiness (spoiler alert: he didn’t). Moreover, most of the moves Scudder makes, and even the circumstances in which he lives, are alien artifacts of the last century: There are no more pay-phones or VHS rental stores, and the flophouses and cheap, longer-occupancy hotels that once dotted the city have largely disappeared (the crumbling Whitehouse Hotel, down on the Bowery, is the only one that springs immediately to mind).
When Block wrote Slaughterhouse, it was a contemporary piece; now it reads like historical fiction. This isn’t a negative thing. Block crafts his plot, which features Scudder tracking down the creators of a snuff film while trying to solve a separate murder, with the care and precision of an expert watchmaker, and the antique elements come off as charming throwbacks rather than impediments to the plot’s momentum.
The initial New York Times review of the book was a bit harsh, deeming it “strange and often distasteful,” while holding up Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent as a far better work:
The difference between a brand-name mystery such as “A Dance at the Slaughterhouse” and a designer potboiler such as “Presumed Innocent” is character development. Mr. Turow paints such a detailed portrait of his victims that their deaths actually inspire piquant emotions.
The overall insinuation is that Block (and Scudder) have stumbled over a line into “depravity.” But what did that reviewer expect? Scudder’s environment isn’t a kind one. He arrives long after most victims are dead, and must move quickly to ensure that more people aren’t killed; this isn’t a courtroom thriller, which can devote dozens of pages to exploring the particulars of individual crime and victim.
And besides, the point isn’t the victims themselves; it’s all about the gritty milieu and how it affects Scudder, testing his personal code. Around midway through the book, Scudder sits down for a friendly chat with his buddy Mick, a career criminal who drinks 12-year-old whiskey while Scudder sticks with coffee. Mick spins a lengthy tale of robbery and murder, interspersed with choice bits of advice like this one:
A little later [Mick] said, “Sometimes you have to kill them. One runs for the door and you drop him, and then you have to take out all the rest of them. Or you know they’re not people who will let it go, and it’s kill them or watch your back for the rest of your life. What you do then is scatter the drugs all over the place. Grind the bricks to powder, pour it on the bodies, tread it into the rug. Let it look like dealers killing each other. The cops don’t break their necks to solve that kind of killing.”
This digression isn’t Block trying to fatten up his book’s word-count; Scudder later takes Mick’s advice to heart in a way that’s unexpected and a bit horrifying to anyone who prefers their protagonists to stick on the right side of the law at all times—but his bloody moves are totally in character nonetheless. Block has never been interested in a fictional world where absolute righteousness combats the darkest of evil and emerges triumphant. If you take one lesson away from the Scudder books, it’s that the world is blood-spattered shades of gray, and you have to struggle to maintain any semblance of decency or goodness.
In the 28 years since the release of Slaughterhouse, a broad swath of crime fiction has focused increasingly on that strange, distasteful gray world that Block so effectively invoked; there’s a lot of emphasis on protagonists’ inner demons, and how their decisions are often morally ambivalent (if not outright evil, when seen from a certain perspective).
In this sense, Block is a trendsetter, and Scudder from 1991 fits right in with protagonists of the current era: Just look at the creations of Dennis Lehane (such as his characters in Live By Night, which won the Edgar in 2013), George Pelacanos, and any number of others. Slaughterhouse might describe a world that’s largely gone, but in many ways, it also feels startlingly present, even particularly advanced for its time. It’s worth your read.
Notes from the 1992 Edgar Awards:
- The other nominees for Best Novel were Andrew Klavan for Don’t Say a Word, Nancy Pickard for I.O.U., Stuart Woods for Palindrome, and Lia Matera for Prior Convictions.
- David Simon won Best Fact Crime for Homicide: Life on the Streets, the book that served as the basis for the eponymous TV show, his precursor to The Wire.
- Peter Blauner took home Best First Novel for his book Slow Motion Riot. He edged out Don Winslow (A Cool Breeze in the Underground), Marcy Heidish (Deadline), Terence Faherty (Deadstick), and Mary Willis Walker (Zero at the Bone).
- Unsurprisingly, The Silence of the Lambs earned the Best Motion Picture Edgar.
- Elmore Leonard, only 8 years removed from his win for LaBrava, served as the awards’ Grand Master.
Next week, tune in as Angie Barry’s examines Bootlegger’s Daughter by Margaret Maron. See you then!
A special thanks goes out to The Mysterious Bookshop for donating many of the review copies of the award-winning books. For the latest on all new releases, as well as classic books for your collections, make sure to sign up for their newsletter.