Review: A Time to Scatter Stones by Lawrence Block

cover-block“It would take me longer these days, because my pace is slower than it used to be. And it would take energy, of which I seem to have a finite supply.”

More than forty years since he debuted in The Sins of the Father, and almost a decade since he last appeared in The Night and the Music, unlicensed private investigator Matthew Scudder makes a return in a book that’s less of a mystery and more of a meditation on mortality.

By his own admission, Scudder is an old man now, retired, living a quiet life with his longtime partner, Elaine. He no longer chases trouble, and it rarely finds him. That is until Ellen, a friend of Elaine’s — a prostitute trying to quit the life — asks Scudder for help escaping an abusive client who can’t let her go. Scudder isn’t quite the man he was, but that doesn’t stop him getting involved.

This is a novel that thrives on the readers’ sense of nostalgia for one of crime fiction’s most enduring protagonists. I’ve read most of the series, and appreciated spending another couple hundred pages viewing New York from Scudder’s perspective as he laments the changing face of the city. The narrative engine is a tad too languid for my tastes, and made me miss the days of the younger, swashbuckling Scudder, who was full of blood and thunder. I love it when authors age their protagonists in real time, or semi-real time; Rankin’s done it perfectly with Rebus, and so has Connelly with Bosch; but some characters only work in their pomp, and maybe it’s best to let characters live their lives off the page.

Fans of Block or Scudder will inhale A Time to Scatter Stones in one sitting, and find much to enjoy; a final hurrah But newcomers should look elsewhere, and come back to this one later, when you’ll truly appreciate its nuances and callbacks.

ISBN: 9781596068933
ISBN-10: 1596068930
Series: Matthew Scudder
Format: Hardcover
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 160
Published: 31st January 2019

Review: Time to Murder and Create by Lawrence Block


A couple of weeks back I read A Drop of the Hard Stuff, which reminded me how much I enjoy Lawrence Block, and in particular his Matthew Scudder novels. So I went back and re-read the first book in the series, The Sins of the Father, which lived up to the pedestal my memory had elevated it to, and immediately tore through the second book, Time to Murder and Create. And wouldn’t you know it, I’m now reading the third, and highly anticipating the seminal fifth book in the series.

Time to Murder and Create has a tantalising premise: a small-time crook hires Scudder to guard a package, and only open it if he meets an untimely demise.

Obviously he does. C’mon, now. What did you expect?

Scudder discovers the package contains four envelopes, three of which hold blackmail evidence for three different people — all of which is potentially worthy of murder — and the fourth envelope contains cash for Scudder’s investigatory services. The dead crook wants Scudder to unravel the mystery of his death, and so our unlicensed private investigator visits each of the blackmail victims, probing them, determined to uncover the identity of the killer.

This isn’t top tier Block, but it’s a taut page-turner, and readers will enjoy this pulpy, bite-sized mystery. It’s very workmanlike, like Block’s on autopilot, going through the motions as he weaves his tale. Still highly readable and enjoyable, full of colourful characters and perfect dialogue and descriptions; just missing that special something. More than anything, Time to Murder and Create adds layers to the character of Matthew Scudder, which makes the payoff in the fifth book in the series, Eight Million Ways to Die, all the more resonant.

ISBN: 9780752827490
Format: Paperback (179mm x 145mm x 14mm)
Pages: 176
Imprint: Orion (an Imprint of The Orion Publishing Group Ltd )
Publisher: Orion Publishing Co
Publish Date: 1-Sep-1999
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: The Sins of the Father by Lawrence Block


Lawrence Block’s first Matthew Scudder novel, The Sins of the Father, is exactly what I want from a crime novel. It’s spare and lean, and propulsive. No gimmicks, stripped of anything even remotely superfluous. The mystery, which seems open and shut, is of course anything but, and quickly unravels into something more menacing. And as a series-starter, it prevails, brilliantly and unequivocally. It tells the reader: this is Matt Scudder; get used to the name. He’s stickin’ around awhile.

The Sins of the Father sees Scudder hired by a distraught father to investigate the recent stabbing murder of his estranged daughter. Not to solve it, because the apparent killer — his daughter’s gay male roommate — has already been arrested, and self-inflicted his own punishment, by hanging himself in his cell. No, the girl’s father merely wants to understand why anyone would want to kill his daughter, and what circumstances lead to her murder?

The Scudder novels always have two protagonists: the man himself, naturally, and New York City. The two are inseparable, like Batman and Gotham City, and Superman and Metropolis. And mid-1970’s New York is a hell of a place, rife with strange and dangerous characters and corner-street bars. Scudder’s NYC isn’t a place I’d necessarily want to visit, but I’m always more than happy to witness through his eyes. With token brusqueness and larconic wit, he delves into the lives of the murdered woman and her roomate, untangling sordid lives, where no one is innocent, even if they’re not necessarily guilty of the crime being investigated.

The Sins of the Father is brilliant. The plot hums along without a wasted sentence, and despite its confined length, Block still allows snippets of Scudder’s personality and foibles to shine through. It’s going to floor you with ingenuity; it’s not breaking any moulds, it doesn’t redefine the genre: it’s just a really, really well written crime novel. Which is par for the course, obviously; we’re talking about Lawrence Block, here.

ISBN: 9780752834528
Format: Paperback
Pages: 192
Imprint: Orion (an Imprint of The Orion Publishing Group Ltd )
Publisher: Orion Publishing Co
Publish Date: 6-Jul-2000
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: A Drop of the Hard Stuff by Lawrence Block

9781409135166The master of the hard-boiled detective story delivers a noir masterpiece with A Drop of the Hard Stuff, a tale about good intentions that backfire, spectacularly and fatally, for all involved. Lawrence Block doesn’t waste time with pleasantries and sub-plots and red-herrings that convolute the tales spun by his contemporaries; A Drop of the Hard Stuff is a pared-down, hard-edged investigation into the death of a man trying to make amends, infused with just enough compassion to make it resonate.

A Drop of the Hard Stuff is a prequel to the preceding Matthew Scudder novels, which is framed around the protagonist reflecting on his first year off the bottle, and his inquiries into the death of a guy he went to school with Jack Ellery, who Scudder’s had previous interactions with through a one-way mirror at a police precinct while he was still wearing the badge, then again years later at an AA meeting. Scudder and Ellery chose very different paths, but their addiction unites them, and they get talking, Ellery mentioning his “Step Nazi” sponsor Gregory Stillman, who is a true believer in the 12 steps in the AA program, and is adamant that each be completed.

Unfortunately for Ellery, his dedication to the fulfilment of Step 8 gets him killed. Having scrawled a list of the people he’s wronged, Jack begins the difficult process of apologising to each of them. Trouble is, his criminal background means saying sorry to bunch of nefarious characters; one of whom puts a bullet in Ellery’s mouth and forehead. With the NYPD unconcerned by the death of a former criminal — even one trying to make amends — Jack’s sponsor, Stillman, hires Scudder to look into the people on Jack’s list.

Block paints a sympathetic picture of Jack Ellery, a man who has done bad things, owned up to them, and is now determined to rectify his mistakes. A Drop of the Hard Stuff makes you wonder: is reconciliation possible? When you’ve broken bad, is atonement feasible? Scudder’s investigation is fairly conventional, but it’s augmented by particular moments that force Scudder to confront his own demons, and his attachment to the sauce.

There hasn’t been a Scudder novel since A Drop of the Hard Stuff, and if this is a master’s valedictory swansong, it’s a fitting finale, and an absolute pleasure to read.

ISBN: 9781409135166
Format: Paperback (133mm x 201mm x 23mm)
Pages: 336
Imprint: Orion (an Imprint of The Orion Publishing Group Ltd )
Publisher: Orion Publishing Co
Publish Date: 1-Sep-2012
Country of Publication: United Kingdom