Sunday 7 September 2014

A Walk Among the Tombstones by Lawrence Block

With the exception of Thomas Harris, famed for dreaming up Hannibal Lecter and creating the whole serial killer genre, I would say the greatest living crime writer is Lawrence Block. But whereas we're lucky if we get a Thomas Harris book every ten years, Lawrence Block is blazingly prolific. There are 18 titles in his Matthew Scudder series alone.

Although I've been increasingly aware of Block and the superlative quality of his writing, I am a late discoverer of this series, having only read my first Scudder novel (which is actually chronologically the tenth) — A Walk Among the Tombstones. Thanks to the magical Miranda, the UK editor of Hard Case Crime, an advance copy of Hard Case's lovely movie edition of Walk Among turned up in the mail the other day. Cue a series of late nights as I sat turning pages, unable to put this powerful, gruelling novel aside.

I won't give away much if I reveal that A Walk Among the Tombstones concerns some exceptionally vicious kidnappers. Block's stroke of genius is to make the first victim of these kidnappers a drug dealer, which means he can't go to the police. Instead he goes to private detective Matt Scudder.

What makes this fictional private eye different from all the others on the market? He's a former cop and reformed alcoholic — nothing new there. But what does distinguish this Scudder novel is simply the brilliance of Block's writing. The plotting is brisk, original, unpredictable and shocking. Great fundamental carpentry. But beyond that we have Block's prose which is of an impressively high order. It's cool, vivid and highly readable. His characterisation is also terrific; I especially like Scudder's streetkid sidekick TJ. And in keeping with this, Block has a knack for smart, authentic-sounding dialogue. Given that his characters include a young black hustler, an old Irish bar owner and a Russian gangster, it's just as well.

And his dialogue is also often very funny, as in this exchange about a struggling ex-junkie: "He's pissed of at God." "Shit, who isn't?" Or when Scudder and his callgirl girlfriend discuss a very strange woman they've just met. "She was probably on magic mushrooms, or some hallucinogenic fungus that grows only on decaying leather. I'll tell you one thing, she could make good money as a dominatrix."  "Not if her leather's decaying."

This dark, sardonic sense of humour pervades the book, which is told by Scudder in the first person. When a computer hacker tries to enlighten him on a technical issue, Scudder ruefully observes, "It was a little like trying to explain the fundamentals of non-euclidean geometry to a field mouse."

Combine this with a plot driven by relentless and unremitting suspense — there are sequences when you literally won't be able to stop reading — and you have an exceptional novel and a classic crime thriller.

What I should warn readers about is that this is a novel which pulls no punches. It's often gruesome and extremely violent. (That pond water in front of Liam Neeson ain't tinted red for no reason.) But this is balanced by the humour, warmth of characterisation and the fact that Scudder is a proper hero. A genuine good guy and urban knight errant. Down these mean streets...

Promisingly, the movie of Walk Among the Tombstones, which is due out soon, stars Liam Neeson and is written and directed by the outstanding Scott Frank. Fingers crossed, we could all be in for a treat. Personally, I'll be first in line when it opens.

(Image credits: With the exception of the lovely film tie-in — thank you, Miranda! — the covers of this great novel are a pretty dull bunch. The Hard Case beauty can be found here at the Hard Case website. The best of the rest is the Avon skull edition, which I gleaned from ABE. The others are from Good Reads.)

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