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Shooting Blanks : THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD, <i> By Lawrence Block (William Morrow: $20; 324 pp.)</i>

<i> John Schulian has committed his own crimes in the name of fiction, primarily while writing episodes of "Wiseguy" and "Miami Vice."</i>

It is no easy gig chronicling the hard-boiled life. All those bullets, all that booze, all those broads--they take a toll on the toughest of wordsmiths. Look at Elmore Leonard as his stylistic quirks degenerate from hypnotic to threadbare. And James Lee Burke lost in the mist of a nonsensical title. And Robert B. Parker infatuated by gourmet cooking guaranteed to soften any private eye’s brain. They are heavy hitters in this dodge, but you worry that their imaginations will end up stripped like so many stolen Porsches.

You do not stop buying crime fiction, though, not with the Jones you have. Instead, you search for newcomers who can hot-wire your interest the way Laurence Shames did with “Florida Straits,” and you relive those thrilling days of yesteryear with Chandler and Mannett and Cain, and you wait for today’s big guns to stop shooting blanks.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Dec. 26, 1993 FOR THE HARD-BOILED RECORD
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 26, 1993 Home Edition Book Review Page 10 Book Review Desk 1 inches; 17 words Type of Material: Correction
In “Shooting Blanks” (Dec. 12), that mysterious name on the short list of giants of crime fiction was Dashiell Hammett.

The latest to step to the firing line is Lawrence Block, whose “The Devil Knows You’re Dead” is his 11th book featuring Matt Scudder, an alcoholic ex-cop trying to balance his quest for justice with his battle to stay sober. For those unacquainted with his work, Block is as good as anybody in the genre except when it comes to getting his name up in lights. Maybe there is no time for self-promotion when a writer is pounding out four different detective series as well as short stories and the occasional free-standing novel. Or maybe fame forever turned its back on Block after Hollywood disemboweled his masterpiece, “Eight Million Ways to Die.”

The only thing right about the movie was the casting of Jeff Bridges as Scudder, whose days are spent helping people whether they can pay him or not and whose nights are haunted by dreams of the little girl he accidentally killed. But as soon as you heard that the site of the movie had been changed to Los Angeles from New York, you gave up hope. Obviously the tofu heads making the decisions cared not that Scudder uses shoe leather instead of a car, lives in a residential hotel and cultivates his sources in Hell’s Kitchen. Hardly a trifecta that can be duplicated in La-La Land.

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Long after the movie mercifully sank out of sight, Block continues to send Scudder down the Manhattan streets that no other fictional private eye working today travels in such fine style. When Scudder reaches a pay phone at the corner of 11th Avenue and West 55th in “The Devil Knows You’re Dead,” he is at a murder scene. The police are saying that an addled Vietnam veteran, one of those lost souls who populate every big city, shot down a yuppie lawyer Scudder knew and did not much care for. No weapon has been found, but the accused had four shell casings in his pocket that matched the slugs dug out of the victim.

The case sounds like a done deal to Scudder until the accused’s brother, an acquaintance from Alcoholics Anonymous, gets his ear by raising the possibility that the killer is someone else, someone the accused is in too much of a fog to identify. A thousand dollars convinces the skeptical Scudder to see what he can find out.

No sooner has he started looking than the dead lawyer’s wife approaches him with questions of her own: Why did her husband never tell her that their apartment in Clinton--the upscale name for Hell’s Kitchen--was bought and paid for? And where did the 300 grand in cash that she found in a strong box come from? And just who the hell had she been married to anyway? If Scudder can come up with answers, he may discover that the killer is still out there on the loose.

But solving the murder is not all Scudder has on his mind. There is the widow, young and fetching, an invitation to a different kind of addiction than he is used to confronting. There is also the woman in whose bed he finds himself waking up on more and more mornings--a former call girl he once saved from a psychopath and is now falling in love with despite his lone-wolf inclinations. There is a third woman in his life, too, this one an old flame who sought refuge in AA with him and is now wracked with cancer; she wants him to get her a gun so she can avoid pills and die a sober death when the pain becomes too much for her to bear.

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And always there is the bottle, tempting Scudder, taunting him, torturing him one day at a time. “I sat on the couch with the lights off and tried to get rid of the thought that was keeping me awake,” he says. “What I couldn’t stop thinking was that someday I would drink again. It seemed perfectly inevitable to me.” No AA meeting in the world could keep that sentiment from sending a shiver down your spine.

You would be hard-pressed to find a tough-guy writer who puts more layers, more textures, in his work than Lawrence Block. And in “The Devil Knows You’re Dead,” it looks like he is going to outdo himself in the richness of his storytelling. Maybe that is why the book winds up being such a resounding dud. It is all jab and no knockout punch.

Never in this “noirish” shaggy-dog story does Block place Scudder in the physical jeopardy that is the lifeblood of the genre. Emotional jeopardy, yes. But that is expected when you read about someone with as many scars on his psyche as Scudder has. What is not expected is the risk he runs of talking readers to death.

Granted, some of the chitchat amuses, as when Scudder and another recovering drunk discuss whether the bottle takes you to Bolivia of Cleveland. And some of it is wonderfully ironic, particularly a murderous saloonkeeper revealing his fear of the government by saying, “A man can’t own anything or the bastards’ll be after taking it away from him.” But it is beyond painful to know that Scudder has the following thought: “Relationships don’t end, they just take a different form.” A private eye ruminating on relationships? Forget how evolved Scudder is supposed to be. He needs a good pistol-whipping.

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As you hurry away from the literary wreckage, you cannot help suspecting that Block has lost his taste for the hard-boiled, that he yearns to examine the human condition instead of solve mysteries. Fine and dandy. But as long as he works the bloody side of the street, he has obligations to meet. This time out, he dodged them unblushingly. The temptation is to say he shot himself in the foot, but the image is all wrong. Too much action.

“The Devil Knows You’re Dead” is also available on cassette from HarperAudio, read by Stephen Lang (3 hrs. abridged, $17).


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