Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder series about an alcoholic ex-NYPD Detective working as an unlicensed private detective started in 1976 and has been a reliably great crime fiction character arc over the past 43 years. Scudder has more-or-less aged in real time over the course of the series which is why I was so intrigued to read Block’s 2019 take on Scudder in the new 160-page novella, “A Time to Scatter Stones.”
As we join our hero narrator, he’s still sober and still married to Elaine at age seventy-something. His bad knees generally don’t stop him from walking around Manhattan, but an ice pack is needed to ease the pain when he gets home. Block does a nice job getting readers up to speed on Scudder and Elaine’s backstories. Elaine is a former prostitute who just started attending her own support-group meetings for women who were in the life - an analogous situation to Scudder’s own AA meetings that he’s been attending for 35 years.
Elaine is sponsoring a young ex-prostitute named Ellen who recently quit escorting. The problem is that she has one client who is not taking no for an answer and insists on seeing for paid sex her despite her demure protestations. She wants Scudder’s help to make the creep lay off and go away. The stakes are increased as his behavior becomes increasingly stalky.
The first problem is identifying the stalker because it turns out that johns don’t always give their prostitutes their real names. The second problem is that 2019 Scudder is not the same ass-kicker as 1989 Scudder. It’s fun to see a beloved PI who is physically past his prime engaging in old-school gumshoe work, as the story drives toward a satisfyingly violent confrontation and a sexy conclusion.
I’m pleased to report that even at age 80, Lawrence Block still has his writing chops. His knack for snappy dialogue is better than ever, and his plotting is flawless. Block is a mystery fiction grandmaster and a national treasure. If “A Time to Scatter Stones” turns out to be Scudder’s last appearance, Block can rest easy knowing the journey of this beloved character ended on a high note. Highly recommended.
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