By Lawrence Block
This tale of nastiness is one of the early books from Matt Scudder’s sober period. For the uninitiated, Matt Scudder is Lawrence Block’s unlicensed PI who, until Eight Million Ways to Die, has a severe drinking problem. Afterward, he cleans up and dutifully attends AA meetings. In the later books, Block’s depictions of this tend the drag a bit, but here, it’s woven quite nicely into the background of Scudder’s life. It’s even a plot point.
Scudder is asked to look into the brutal murder of a drug dealer’s wife. Kenan Khoury is a mid-level dealer. He moves product into the country and sells it in bulk. He knows the business is dirty, but it’s a business. Two men abduct his wife and demand a million dollars for her safe return. He has only $400,000, so the kidnappers agree. They return his wife cut up into individually wrapped pieces. Because of his business, he has to destroy her body and can’t call the police. Enter Scudder.
Scudder takes the case with nothing to go on. The victim is cremated and he has no clue about the attackers other than some vaguely general information. But Scudder is a patient man. He pulls the strings, gets a boost from his street-wise teenage friend TJ, and even meets some hackers to carve through the phone company’s security like paper. Eventually, he’s able to narrow down where the men live to a general vicinity and reconstruct where they were after the last eyewitness account of the kidnapping.
These are evil men. Scudder gradually learns that their favorite sport is to snatch a woman off the street, rape her repeatedly, then kill her, leaving a mutilated corpse. There are a lot of comparisons to LA’s Hillside Stranglers, who were recent history when this 1992 novel came out. One of them hits on the idea that they could do this to the wives, lovers, and daughters of midlevel drug dealers and extort money out of them at the same time. When Scudder finally meets one of them, they act hurt when they realize that one of their victims’ husbands is eventually going to kill them. “But I kept my word.” It’s that lack of self-awareness, or rather that passive narcissism that’s at the heart of a lot of evil.
It’s a really good post-drunk Scudder novel. The first four or so, where Scudder meets TJ, gets together with hooker Elaine, and manages to stay sober despite going through as bad or worse than he had before getting clean, are really well done. They might have made an excellent coda to the series (which Eight Million Ways to Die was originally intended.) It’s certainly one of Block’s most emotionally deep novels, having more in common with Ross McDonald’s Lew Archer than the Matt Scudder of old.