When I was at the movies to see Gone Girl – which I recently reviewed – I saw the shorts of a film that looked dark and violent; I later found it described as an example of the neo noir. A New York detective who had quit the force after a child died as ‘collateral damage’ in a shootout with criminals – an accident, but one the detective believed had come about partly because he had been drinking… A detective that now worked as an unlicensed private eye just inside, or sometimes outside the law. It was the title that brought it all back to me. A Walk Among the Tombstones, published in 1992, is one of a series of books by Lawrence Block featuring Matthew Scudder, private detective and recovering alcoholic. So I thought I’d write about the book before seeing the film – or maybe not seeing the film, if the story turned out to be more violent than I remembered from reading it twenty years ago.
A Walk Among the Tombstones is the tenth in the Matthew Scudder series, so the death of the child is not part of the story (as it appears to be in the film). But it continues to haunt Scudder, and he goes to a lot of AA meetings to help stay sober. Then Pete Khoury, who he has met at AA, asks him to undertake some work for his brother Kenan. Kenan’s wife has been kidnapped. (This is where the film starts.) He pays a ransom, but his wife is brutally murdered anyway. He can’t go to the police because his money comes from drug trafficking, and they would ask awkward questions. So he wants Scudder to find the men who did it. And then he wants to kill them.
After this fairly dramatic start, the book moves into a much calmer phase with Scudder looking for the killers. Though he doesn’t have much to go on, he patiently puts together evidence and clever guess work. ‘When I start something I have a hell of a time letting go of it,’ he says. ‘I don’t do it by being brilliant. I just hang on like a bulldog until something shakes loose.’ He calls in favours from old police colleagues, and gets some help from computer hackers. The story is set in the early 1990s, so there are no mobile phones, little by way of police data bases, and fairly basic computers. The New York phone system still works by people putting quarters into public phones. Goodness knows what the film will make of that. He finds out some very nasty things, but initially these are in the past and written down or verbally reported. Violence is described, but not with the immediacy that it might gain by being shown in a film. Things do, however, move to a violent climax.
Yet I don’t feel that this is a particularly violent book. This is partly because of Block’s understated prose style, and his ability to undercut the horror with a sort of wry humour. For example, someone is garrotted. ‘I had seen a garrotte before so I knew right away what I was looking at, but nothing really prepares you for it. It was as awful a sight as I had ever seen in my life,’ says Scudder. But then he goes on ‘But it did lower the odds.’ If the film shows such things, it will indeed be noir, and I won’t want to see it. If it can retain Block’s lightness of touch, with the violence implied rather than revelled in, then I might find it worth seeing.
Part of the tone of the story – and presumably the film – is set by Scudder himself, played in the film by Liam Neeson. He is clearly a damaged man; after seeing a play with ‘a lot of brooding intensity’ he comments that ‘It took me through dark passages in the self without troubling to turn the lights on.’ He is self-contained and tries to remain unemotional; he follows the AA principle of taking one day at a time. His drinking destroyed his family life, but in this story he is in an ongoing relationship with a character from a previous book. He lives simply, but in a way that is willingly self-imposed, rather than forced on him. He is an honourable man, in the tradition of Philip Marlowe; he will do dodgy things for good ends. The story is made less confronting by the fact that the drug trafficker, Kenan Khoury, isn’t shown as evil, despite the way he makes his money. In fact he is quite a sympathetic character.
I am assuming, of course, that the plot of the film follows that of the book. This is probably an unwise assumption, as I know from this review that the end of the film is different from the end of the book, though I don’t know how. Somehow I fear the softer edges of the book will have been knocked off in the film.
Given that this book was published in 1992, I wonder why it is only now that it has attracted the attention of the movie moguls. Perhaps it is the title; Block does a good line in titles, with, for example, the two before this one being A Ticket to the Boneyard (1990) and A Dance at the Slaughterhouse (1991). He is an amazingly prolific writer; there are 17 Matthew Scudder novels stretching from 1976 to 2011. In addition he has a series about a bookseller and part-time burglar, which is fun, if a little formulaic, one about a man who never needs to sleep and a whole lot of others, most written under other names. But from what I’ve read, the Matthew Scudder series is the best of them. And no, I probably won’t go and see the film.