Sometimes it takes a book being turned into a movie to spur me into 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 hard-boiled 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.
In Mark Billingham’s The Demands, Detective Sargent Helen Weeks is a new mom whose life has already been touched by personal violence with the murder of her child’s father. When teenage thugs harass a local newsagent, Javed Akhtar, she hesitates when it comes to getting involved- hoping he can resolve the issue without her help. Little does she know that the newsagent, a grieving father, has an agenda of his own. It involves holding her and another customer hostage while demanding that Detective Tom Thorne investigate the alleged suicide of his son in prison. Thorne races to find answers for Akhtar before either of the hostages can come to harm.
Sigh. I have found another mystery series to add to the growing list of detective series where I have some catching up to do. Thorne is pretty much all that both women and men love in their hero detective. He’s smart, doesn’t play by all the rules and he cares about the people involved in his cases – he wants to find justice for them. I also got the feeling that he was probably pretty easy on the eyes. Never a bad thing.
Anyway, the case is complex and Billingham touches upon ethnic and religious tensions in London as Akhtar is convinced that the country to which he has dedicated his life has rushed to the easy conclusion in the death of his son. There is definitely evidence of discrimination as Thorne re-investigates all the angles of the altercation that led Akhtar’s son to be imprisoned in the first place, but other troubling angles arise in which privilege and sexuality play important roles. Accompanying the tense hostage scenes and the action of the developing investigation are the interior lives of both Thorne and Weeks. Thorne is pondering the aftermath of his latest failed relationship and Weeks is still lost and grieving over her own partner’s death before they were able to resolve their troubled relationship.
While it’s hard to feel empathy for a man who would take hostages to achieve his aims, Billingham manages to make Akhtar understood, if not championed. The Demands is deftly plotted and well-written and makes for a read that is both thoughtful and suspense filled. Readers who are new to the Thorne series will have no problems jumping right in. Highly Recommended.
Read More Reviews At: A Bookworm’s World – My Bookish Ways – The Review Broads
Derek Strange is a newly minted private investigator when a young woman comes in asking for his help finding a cheap ring. As it turns out, the ring is connected to the murder of an acquaintance by a gangster name Red Fury (so named for the car that his girlfriend drives). During Strange’s inquiries into the whereabouts of the ring, he hooks up with his former partner at the Baltimore Police Department, Frank Vaughn, a man whose views of black society and the world in general are outdated, and not in line with emerging 1970’s culture. The two ex-partners end up more entwined in the case than they planned, and tension between rival parties escalates and the body count continues to rise.
Pelecanos is often an astute observer of human behavior, relationships and language, but I had mixed feelings on this novel. Something about the distance of the voice in the storytelling, and maybe my own unfamiliarity with 1970’s, made Strange, Vaughn and the various villains come off as little more than caricatures – even as the story was engaging enough for me to want to see how it culminated at the end. This is not Pelecanos’s first outing with these characters, so it is possible that I am missing something in not having experienced the fullness of their history together, but still this short but full story fell flat to me in comparison with his other novels.