It starts with a couple of scenes reminiscent of Strangers on a Train. Stock broker Tom Widmer is asked by another broker, Marty Croupcho, to kill his wife. They discussed killing each other’s spouses for months, but Widmer always thought it was a joke. Croupcho says he’s not kidding. His wife is filing for divorce that day. So Widmer does it, trying to make it look like a burglary gone bad. Too bad he’s no killer. He even leaves DNA evidence in the toilet when he throws up from nerves. Open and shut case. Right?
Well, no. Widmer is a slam dunk for Detective Ben Dougherty, “Doc” to his friends, of the Penns River Police Department. Penns River is suburb of Pittsburgh struggling to find its identity in a post-industrial world. Widmer himself is feeling age creeping up on him. He’s young enough to still have options but old enough to notice he’s alone. His partner is a retired Pittsburgh cop named Grabek, who’s good but does the least amount of work possible to get the job done. What makes this case odd is a second murder in an abandoned row house. The man is a known operator for what’s left of Pittsburgh’s mafia, but he also turns out to be “Marty Croupcho,” and not the Marty Croupcho who turned up at Widmer’s arraignment.
Worst Enemies is a very working class novel. There are no real power brokers in this one, except maybe a local mob boss who spends as much time running his car dealership as he does the remains of his criminal empire. Penns River is populated by a motley collection of Irish, Slavic, Italian, and black characters who used to make the steel and the cars and the appliances America buys. It’s not the depressed wasteland of the 1980’s and 90’s, but the town needs an identity it can’t seem to find.
There’s a certain small town vibe to King’s writing. Worst Enemies takes place closer to an urban center than Stephen King’s fictional Maine towns, but there’s a sense of history there, both personal and shared, that builds the connection with the reader. When a writer has you seeing the places where you yourself grew up as the story unfolds, often without realizing it, he’s done his job.
And done it well.