The NYPD has captured “The Ice Pick Killer,” a man who, eight years before we meet Matt Scudder in this tale, went around killing women with… Wait for it… An icepick. Lou Pinell freely admits to all but one killing. He swears he did not kill Barbara Ettinger. And her father believes her. He hires Scudder to look into the matter on the recommendation of an old friend of Scudder’s on the department.
When Scudder talks to Ettinger’s widower, he suddenly gets phone calls from a woman demanding the dead stay buried. The next morning, he’s told to drop the case. Which, of course, Scudder cannot do. Eventually, he does resolve the case, and it ends in a typically Scudder manner, which once resulted in a man committing suicide on his say so. It’s not as drastic as that ending in Sins of the Father, but it shows Scudder’s greatest tool is persuasion, not bad for a man holed up in a rundown hotel and spending most of his time in a bottle.
A Stab in the Dark is the last Scudder novel before the watershed Eight Million Ways to Die. While the case is more humdrum – mostly Scudder being frustrated that even the real killer (before unmasking) has trouble remembering events that happened most of a decade earlier. Instead, Scudder finds himself becoming more and more aware that maybe, despite protestations to the contrary, he might not be able to quit anytime he wants. In fact, one of the witnesses, a sculptor who used to be Barbara Ettinger’s employer, realizes she herself is an alcoholic after becoming involved with Scudder. It’s a warning to Matt, one he fails to heed until the events of Eight Million. She even gives a glimpse of Scudder’s future in the later books, when Scudder leans on his AA groups the way he once leaned on the bottle to get through the day.