A Walk Among The Tombstones
“You hear it all the time now. Cops, DAs, everybody. There’ still DEA guys playing the same old tune, ‘We’re winning the war on drugs. Give us the tools and we can do the job.’ I don’t know, maybe they believe it, but you’re better off believing in the Tooth Fairy. Least that way you might wind up with a quarter under your pillow.”
The tenth book in a series is rarely advisable as a suitable entry point into a new series. Still, with the 2014 film adaption starring Liam Neeson, that is how Lawrence Block’s 1992 novel A Walk Among The Tombstones has been marketed. So with that in mind, I took the dive into the series here and I have to say, came out surprisingly impressed.
Set in the underbelly of New York City and focused around Block’s long-running character Matt Scudder – a hardboiled private detective, ex-cop and recovering alcoholic now involved in a loose relationship with a part-time call girl – the story begins with the kidnapping, ransom of the wife of a young heroin dealer, Kenan Khoury. After the ransom is paid, the body of his wife turns up in the trunk of a car, having long since been brutally killed and dismembered. Khoury’s drug-addicted brother, Peter then recruits Scudder to track the perpetrators down. His investigations lead him onto the trail of a notorious gang of criminals with a long record of kidnapping and murder – usually of young prostitutes before they decided to hit the big time and focus their attentions of the wives of wealthy drug dealers. Following the kidnapping of the young daughter of another dealer, and with the aid of various shady underground individuals, Scudder gradually picks up on the trail of the organisation, overseeing the tense exchange between kidnapper and victim, and eventually tracking down the locations of the perpetrators, whilst circumventing the detection by the police of the crime, as well as the plans for revenge being set by Scudder’s own criminal clients.
“ ‘They’re not real,’ he said, ‘The women. They aren’t real. They’re toys, that’s all. When you have a hamburger are you eating a cow? Of course not. You’re eating a hamburger.’ A slight smile. ‘Walking down the street she’s a woman. But once she gets in the truck that’s over. She’s just body parts.’ ”
Unsurprisingly given the nature of its subject matter, it’s a pretty violent and gritty book –the details about the work of killers and their treatment of their victims are particularly graphic. It’s fair to say that aspects of the investigation are pretty badly dated by today’s standards (caller ID/call tracing are treated as being seemingly futuristic inventions which are almost enough to help solve a case like this almost-single handed), but then a story should never be judged retrospectively and/or based solely on changes in times. If there is any criticism to level at the book, it’s probably in the character of Kenan Khoury. No matter how humbled a man might be after the kidnapping and murder of his wife, it’s hard to imagine a high-level drug dealer as not having more resources to hand, or that he would be such a meek, quiet and fairly weak-seeming individual. Still, the focus of the book is understandably around Scudder.
As a character, not to mention a detective, Scudder is an interesting one – he’s a man who is all too aware of his faults and the troubles that come with life as a detective. Whilst being very much a detective in the hardboiled fashion, he’s a lot more vulnerable than many others tend to be. As a recovering ex-alcoholic, he spends a lot of his time in and out of AA meetings throughout the course of the book, as he tries to maintain his sanity and sobriety along with having to deal with the intensity and brutality of the work he’s been engaged on. He’s a complex character, violent when necessary and not prepared to get his hands dirty and take on work for criminals, though he’s certainly not without his redeeming features. The development of his relationship with his call-girl girlfriend Elaine throughout the course of the book gives him a sense of humanity and personal development which other hardboiled PIs don’t always get. Granted it’s only a snap-shot into his character which has been developed over a course of (as of now) around 17 novels, but it’s enough to make me want to read more of his outings.
In terms of writing, there’s not much that can be faulted with the book. The investigation moves at a steady and logical pace (notwithstanding the above points made about some of the more dated aspects of it), and Block brings in a range of lively characters to move events along, many of them free-lance criminals or troublemakers who Scudder has come to be acquainted with over the years. Some of the moral aspects of the work that Scudder is doing could perhaps have been given more focus, though the inclusion of the later plot point whereby the daughter of another dealer is kidnapped does serve to avoid any immediate issues that might have arisen had it simply been a case of Scudder helping some criminal clients seek out revenge on another bunch of criminals.
As an entry point in the series, it seems to be a pretty safe place to start. There are few references to previous outings or characters from other novels, or at least not enough to be either particularly noticeable or to detract from the overall story. For a series that began in 1976, this entry is definitely enjoyable, albeit sometimes a pretty stark and brutal ready, although how it holds up to other entries remains to be seen. But, based on the strength of this one, I’ve gone ahead and gotten hold of the first couple of entries in the series. So as far as an entry point goes, it does a fine job.
Whoever said a movie-tie in isn’t good for business…?