Sometimes it takes a book being turned into a movie to spur me to reading a writer’s work, or in this case, get back to it. With A Walk Among Tombstones, Liam Neeson and Dan Stevens are providing the impetus to return to the writing of Lawrence Block in anticipation of seeing the movie. I was introduced to Block back in 2011, when I read his most recent entry in the Matthew Scudder series entitled A Drop of the Hard Stuff. I loved the hardboiled feel of the book and the intricacy of the detective work as that novel examined an early case in Scudder’s career. However, I didn’t get a sense of Scudder’s history. It also seemed that he spent an inordinate amount of time attending AA meetings and contemplating his life and sobriety. Nevertheless I was intrigued by his character and had always planned to the earlier books.
A Drop of the Hard Stuff follows Scudder as he’s first embracing his sobriety and AA. I remember wondering whether he would be less intense, even happier as he became more comfortable in his new life. Reading this novel both confirmed and disproved my thoughts on Scudder. Walk Among Tombstones begins with Scudder narrating the last hours in the life of Francine Koury, the wife of a modest heroin distributor. In the midst of buying groceries, she is abducted by two men who escort her into the back of a blue van and drive off with her. Scudder juxtaposes her movements and abduction against his own; he spends time with his girlfriend and contemplates a trip to Ireland to visit a wayward friend who is having problems returning to the country. His plans change when he receives a call from Kenan Koury and his brother Peter (whom Scudder knows from AA meetings) for help dealing with Francine’s abductors.
While Scudder had no love for drug dealers, neither does he have any qualms about tracking and handing over a pair of ruthless kidnappers to vigilante justice. And so the tale begins. A Walk Among Tombstones is a dark, gritty novel exploring a brutal and senseless crime, but I enjoyed reading it for a number of reasons. Chief among them is the character development and the portrayal of the interpersonal relationships- they strengthen what could easily have been a plot driven novel. While the number of AA meeting he attends hasn’t changed, Scudder is at a different place in his life, more balanced as he develops his relationship with Elaine, whose straightforward support and street smarts make her an engaging lover and confidante. He also deepens his relationship with TJ, a street kid with the smarts and connection to help Scudder track down the bad guys, while developing a firm rapport with Peter and Kenan.
I also found myself fascinated with being immersed in the grittiness of ‘80s New York. It’s almost like reading about another world. The subways were dangerous, cell phones had yet to make an appearance among the common man, computers weren’t wireless, and TJ’s big thrill comes from finally getting a beeper. I’m very curious to see how this translates in the movie, but Block masterfully conveys the New York of a bygone era and a complex investigator attempting to piece his life together in that world. Hollywood would be wise to stick to the main beats of this engaging and finely detailed crime novel.