For those still unfamiliar with Scudder - a steadily diminishing number - he has been Block's protagonist eight times previously. A former cop, Scudder is now an unlicensed private eye. Much more important, he's a recovering alcoholic. That's the linchpin fact of his life. Few days pass without Scudder's turning up at an AA meeting somewhere.
In A Dance at the Slaughterhouse, last year's Edgar winner, Block has Scudder say, "There are lots of things I do without knowing why I do them. Half the time I don't know why I stay sober if you want to know the truth, and back when I drank I didn't know why I did that either."
Scudder wouldn't say that now. Not that he's won through to total self- awareness because, of course, he hasn't. Still, much of A Walk Among the Tombstones depicts Scudder's actively learning about Scudder.
His friendship with a black ghetto youth deepens, and Scudder learns from it. His relationship with his lover becomes more complex, riskier and scarier, and Scudder learns from that, too.
Though this voyage of discovery unsettles and bewilders him at times, he won't jump ship. He knows that growth and pain are seldom mutually exclusive. But don't get the wrong idea. No one should confuse Lawrence Block with Marcel Proust. There's some blood-and-thunder plotting going on here.
A drug dealer's young wife is kidnapped. Come up with a cool million, or she's history, he's told. Scudder is appealed to through the dealer's brother, a fellow AA member. Reluctantly, Scudder signs on. The victim, after all, is little more than a girl.
A drug dealer is despicable in terms of his calling, and yet Block humanizes him so effectively that for long stretches it's possible to forget it.
The story is compelling, the suspense is relentless, and Block's prose rises to whatever is demanded of it - always uncluttered, never pretentious, tender and tough by turns.
But most of all, there's Scudder to keep the center firm.
In his seminal essay "The Simple Art of Murder," Raymond Chandler offers his celebrated description of the archetypal hardboiled detective:
"But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is
neither tarnished or afraid. He is the hero. He must be a complete man, and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor."
Philip Marlow certainly, but for Scudder, too, an elegant fit.
A Walk Among the Tombstones is a remarkable book. Graphic, and at times distasteful, it is also undismissible. About its immediate forerunner, the Edgar winner, I wrote, "Block is a talented, idiosyncratic writer pushing for a place among the masters of the genre." Walk cuts the distances.
David Delman, author of 11 mystery novels, writes a monthly roundup on the genre for The Inquirer's View section.