Thursday Reviews: A Stab In The Dark by Lawrence Block

A Stab in the Dark
Lawrence Block

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.

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Thursday Reviews: A Walk Among The Tombstones By Lawrence Block

A Walk Among The Tombstones

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.

Writing Tomes

I’ve actually avoided books on writing over the last few years. A lot of them are written by writers who don’t have the success to justify 200-400 pages of advice. There are similar books and blogs about marketing your books and finding a publisher. Still, there are a few books over the years I’ve found helpful.

The first serious writing book I read was Lawrence Block’s Writing the Novel from Plot to Print. For the first time, I got to look under the hood of paperback novels to see how they were put together. It was still a daunting task to write a novel. Two hundred or three hundred pages? Really? That’s a lot of typing?

It was 1988 or so, and word processors were a rumor to me. I had an electric typewriter with automatic margins and correct tape. Real state-of-the-art stuff that I never really learned how to use. But I could clack away on the typewriter just the same. After reading Block’s book, I tried to write a novel. After several false starts, I wondered if it was endurance. Block recommended an outline, so I wrote a novel that will never see the light of day. For one thing, I literally used Licence to Kill, the James Bond movie, as my outline.

Then I moved to Cincinnati and discovered the Canon Wordstar. This gave way to a Packard Bell with Microsoft Works. Yes, they had programs that looked like typing and would format your text and set your margins for you. Helped that I learned to really type about this time. I reread Block’s book and made a couple more serious attempts at it. By 2002, I was working on the early efforts that became Northcoast Shakedown. It was around the time I shopped it around that the next writing book that actually gave me something came out.

After the accident that nearly killed him, Stephen King put out his famous memoir, On Writing. Part autobiography, part writing clinic, On Writing was simply one guy talking about what he did for a living and how he came to do it. I think I got more out of the biographical part. Obviously, I’ll never have the success King has had. I doubt any writer will again. But the pitfalls of success that snared King can happen to anyone in any walk of life. But there were things that gave insight into what gives King’s writing its humanity, something a lot of horror writers fail miserably at. Before I started each follow up to Northcoast Shakedown, I reread On Writing and Writing the Novel From Plot to Print.

Now, as I dust off Holland Bay and lay the groundwork for a science fiction novel, someone recommended to me The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. Vogler basically condenses and expands on Joseph Campbell’s seminal The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Vogler writes from the standpoint of screenwriting, but the “hero’s journey,” as he calls it, applies to novels as well. Apply it without imagination, and the hero’s journey looks just as formulaic and trite as its critics accuse it of being. Applied skillfully, and it becomes a roadmap for a writer to put together a screenplay or a long work. Vogler also makes it clear that this is not the only type of storytelling. It is, however, what Hollywood uses to judge a screenplay. If you look at the best movies, most of them (not all, but most) confirm the validity of the hero’s journey. If you look at the worst ones, either they fail to follow the hero template (or any other type of storytelling out there) or they simply follow it by rote, adding nothing new or of substance.