LAWRENCE BLOCK – A Walk Among the Tombstones. Matthew Scudder #11, Morrow, hardcover, 1992. Avon, paperback, 1993. Reprinted several times. Film: Universal, 2014 (with Liam Neeson as Matt Scudder).

   Hey, it isn’t as though the guy hasn’t paid his dues. Larry Block has been writing crime fiction for over thirty years, and writing about Matthew Scudder for sixteen; though this is the eleventh Scudder book, his fictional output exceeds forty. Some hard-core mystery fans still prefer his more lighthearted series about the bibliophile burglar, Bernie Rhodenbarr, but Block has devoted his attentions solely to Scudder of late.

    For good reason; the popularity of the Scudder novels has been steadily increasing since publication of When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, and has been crowned for the moment by a 1991 Edgar award for Best Mystery Novel for A Dance at the Slaughterhouse.

   It’s hard to believe, but Scudder wasn’t even deemed worthy of hardcovers when he began his career as an alcoholic sorter of broken dreams in 1976; not until his fourth appearance, as a matter of fact. But that’s all changed, and the release of a new Matt Scudder book is a major event in the mystery world.

   In A Walk Among the Tombstones the walk is a dark one, indeed. A dope dealer’s wife is kidnapped and held for ransom, and when he pays (though refusing to pay as much as they ask), she is returned — wrapped, in pieces. The dealer’s brother, a recovering alcoholic and junkie who has met Scudder at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and is aware of what he does, brings them together.

   The dealer for obvious reasons can not go to the police, and Scudder agrees to hunt his wife’s murderers, knowing full well that revenge, not justice, is the commodity sought As the search narrows its focus, it becomes clear that its objects are even more malign than they first appeared. This is not a book for the squeamish.

   For benefit of those come late to the party, Scudder both is and isn’t a private detective: is, in the sense that he does what a private detective does; isn’t in that he neither has nor wants a license. An alcoholic ex-cop, he never forgets (nor or we allowed to) that the central fact of his existence is alcohol and its daily absence. He has opted out of the structured, safe world that most of us inhabit, choosing to live along its shadowy edges, and his clients are more likely to be fellow denizens of the fringes than little old ladies from Nebraska.

   He has lost, or perhaps discarded, the capacity for passing moral judgements upon his fellow human beings. His best friend is a criminal, a saloon-owning gangster named Mick Ballou who has played a large part in previous books, though absent here; his lady, a tiring but still practicing call girl. He is neither an immoral nor an amoral man, but his morality is very much a personal thing, and not taught in Sunday Schools.

   Scudder’s willingness to accept drug dealers, pimps, prostitutes, and murderers on their own terms is a facet of his character that does not disturb him, but may well disturb us; equally so his capacity for the acceptance of the use of violence.

   There are many reasons to enjoy the Man Scudder novels. Block is a consistently excellent prose craftsman. His stories are beautifully paced, his dialogue crisp and sure. Scudder’s New York City may not be the one that tourists see (they should certainly hope not, anyway), but is a real and vivid place nonetheless. His plots are adequate, but Block’s focus is upon character rather than plot, and it is there that he excels — not just with Scudder, and not just with the supporting cast that may appear and reappear, but with each of the characters important enough to merit description. One of the more sharply delineated of his recent creations is the black street kid, TJ, who makes his second appearance here as one of Scudder’s unofficial helpers. A pair of young computer hackers are also appealingly drawn in the current book.

   While I am reluctant to accord any single person the accolade of being the absolute best writer of hard-boiled fiction, it is quite impossible to discuss the category without citing Lawrence Block prominently. He is simply one of the very best at what he does, and all of his existing fans should rejoice at this latest confirmation. If you haven’t read him before, you’ve wasted a lot of time. Begin now.

— Reprinted from Fireman, Fireman, Save My Books #3, September 1992.