The “Sunday Shorts” feature is dedicated to reviewing short stories and novellas, two forms I absolutely love.
TITLE: A Time to Scatter Stones (A Matthew Scudder novella)
AUTHOR: Lawrence Block
153 pages, Subterranean Press, ISBN 971596068933 (Hardcover)
Disclaimer: Although I bought the Subterranean Press edition, the author also sent me a free e-ARC in exchange for a fair review.
DESCRIPTION: (from the cover flap): More than 40 years after his debut and nearly a decade since his last appearance, one of the most renowned characters in all of crime fiction is back on the case in this new novella by Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Lawrence Block. Well past retirement age and feeling his years – but still staying sober one day at a time – Matthew Scudder learns that alcoholics aren’t the only ones who count the days since their last slip. Matt’s longtime partner, Elaine, tells him of a group of former sex workers who do something similar, helping each other stay out of the life. Burt when one young woman describes an abusive client who’s refusing to let her quit, Elaine encourages her to get help of a different sort. The sort only Scudder can deliver.
MY RATING: 4 stars out of 5
MY THOUGHTS: It is not usually a good idea to too closely conflate a series character with the author who created them. But I’m going to do it: Lawrence Block and Matthew Scudder are both, in my opinion, living proof that getting old doesn’t necessarily have to suck. Block’s regular Facebook posts and newsletters about jaunts around his beloved New York City and new international publishing endeavors give me hope that maybe I’ll be as physically mobile and mentally sharp at that age. And based on this novella, his possibly most-famous character, Matthew Scudder, has aged just as well alongside him.
Scudder is Block’s only series character to age in real-time, since debuting in The Sins of the Fathers in 1976. He’s grown older, he’s grown wiser … and he’s grown more sedate. He’s happily ensconced (and at this point, probably common-law-married) to his longtime companion Elaine in a nice NYC apartment. They have dinner visits with friends, take slow walks around the neighborhood, enjoy local restaurants, don’t grudge each other time apart pursing their own hobbies and twelve-step-group participation, and banter like an old married couple. Oh, do they banter. One of the things I love about Block’s writing is his ear for conversational dialogue that sounds authentic without being quite as awkward as real life, including the tangents we all go off on where we kind of lose track of what our original point was. Only Block’s characters’ conversational tangents are almost always more pertinent to the plot than they at first seem.
The plot is as straight-forward as it sounds: happily retired PI comes out of mothballs to help a friend of his friend. The difficulty comes in how little the endangered woman knows about the man stalking her; Scudder’s rusty (by his own admission), not sure that his investigative skills are still up to the task of finding a man whose name he doesn’t know and face he’s never seen. Of course, he’s back to Classic Scudder by the end of the book, because how could it be otherwise and have the story feel satisfactory – but he’s also feeling the physical toll in a way we haven’t seen him feel it before. Getting older doesn’t have to suck, but it’s still not easy to accept that we can’t do all the things we used to do with the same ease.
I would say the book is only half about this latest case, and half about how easily we lose track of people as we get older. There’s a very nostalgia-heavy tone to this novella; conversationally, Scudder and Elaine bring up just about every major supporting character in the 40-ish year history of the 18-book series. Some of those characters actually appear in the flesh, but most are mentioned in passing. I enjoyed the tone of these reminiscences because it mirrored conversations I’m having even now, in my early 50s, with the people who have been in my life since elementary school about the people who haven’t stayed in our lives. But don’t let this scare you out of picking the book up: I haven’t read most of the Scudder books (when it comes to Block’s series output, I’m more of a Bernie Rhondenbarr man than a Scudder or Keller man), and I never felt like these conversations about old friends threw me out of the story. Rather, they made me interested in reading the rest of the series to find out more about the characters I didn’t already know.
The hardcover edition from Subterranean Press might be close to sold out at this writing, but Block has self-published it in ebook, audio, and paperback formats.