Written by Lawrence Block — Matt Scudder might just be one of the most under-appreciated private detectives in American crime fiction. The former cop has worked 17 cases in crime novels, dating back to the first in the series, The Sins of the Fathers in 1976, and has appeared in two movie adaptations. But somehow it feels like this ground-down, streetwise, former alcoholic would be great in a TV series like Bosch or True Detective. After all, what’s not to love about early 70s New York?
Keeping things real, author Lawrence Block has had his PI age in real time, so this short story takes place in the now and Scudder is in his 70s. His days of rousting punks in back alleys are over and he has settled into a comfortable routine with his partner Elaine. Scudder met her back in his detective days when she was a prostitute, but now he attends his AA meeting while she goes to a talking therapy group called The Tarts. It’s for sex workers who have given up the game and they meet up in a Croatian church every week in Manhattan.
One of these former call girls comes to Scudder with a problem. Ellen has quit prostitution, but one of her clients thinks this means that she’s going to become his exclusively. He wants to pay her for certain sexual acts that she’d rather not get into, and he won’t leave her alone. However, she doesn’t have his real name or his regular phone number because he’s using burners for his bit on the side.
At first Scudder can’t figure out what to do. If he sends Ellen to the police they won’t really be able to help her. Equally, he’s not sure what the man is capable of if riled. He starts to think about his former contacts, and who might be able to assist him. Eventually, he decides to get a former police sketch artist – now a bona fide creative artist – to sit with Ellen and draw the man’s likeness. This works out well because the superintendent at Ellen’s building recognises the man, who has been around looking for her and has left his number. From there, Scudder comes up with his own way of sending the man a message… and it’s not an SMS.
It’s good to have the detective back, although Block says that this is probably the last time Scudder will appear. There’s an angle to this novella involving Scudder and Elaine’s sex life which is pretty-off beat, however reading about how the former detective works through Ellen’s difficult problem will be great for any fan of the series who’s been there with him through his previous cases. He finds out how things have changed in law enforcement as part of the process but, as we’ve seen in the past, he’s not afraid of crossing the line.
The only disappointing thing is that there’s no real twist – at least not in the ‘criminal’ side of the story. A Time To Scatter Stones certainly has a twist but it is one that is more satisfying for Scudder and Elaine than perhaps it will be for readers.
Still, it’s definitely worth catching up with Matt Scudder and if you’ve walked around Manhattan recently you’ll find the locales are perfectly captured in Block’s writing. Surprisingly, Scudder has slipped into the city’s contemporary cafe culture like a natural.
Also see the recent graphic novelisation of Eight Million Ways to Die, the fifth Scudder story brought to life in the style of an 80s comic book.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars