In an age where every novel needs a twist, this 1992 affair by Lawrence Block is refreshing and shocking in its simplicity. An unlicensed alcoholic detective, Matt Scudder, takes a job from a drug trafficker, Kenan Khoury; Khoury’s wife has been kidnapped and murdered, and now he wants to know who did it. Matt Scudder, an ex-cop, briefly considers the morality of taking the job (it is clearly Khoury’s intent to kill whoever Scudder turns up). Then Scudder beats feet all over Brooklyn (he doesn’t have a car), doing his work old school, living out of a hotel room, casually dating a professional call girl, and attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings wherever he can find them.
I liked this book a lot. It was fast paced. Matt Scudder isn’t preachy in any way – in fact he is the exact opposite. He briefly considers big questions of morality, but he is really just an ordinary man. He does not express his thoughts much, even though he is the narrator, and not even when the people around him begin to get a philosophical. His thoughts are purely tactical, sometimes strategic, and they all pertain to trying to figure out who the murderer is.
Another endearing quality of this novel might weigh more with readers who have a nostalgia for the late 80s and early 90s. For one, the investigation as well as the execution of crimes relies heavily on pay phones. The black kid from the streets that Scudder works with drinks Surge soda. Modems are treated like the white man was when he first arrived at Moctezuma’s palace. Caller ID doesn’t even have a name yet, it’s so new – it is described as an LED screen attached to your home phone that can tell you what number is calling in (police are worried that if they implement Caller ID at police stations, people will be less likely to make anonymous phone reports). Fax machines are incredibly useful for stealing police files – you don’t have to rummage through boxes while looking over your shoulder anymore! Lastly, you can still get raped and/or mugged in Times Square. I guess that might still be true today…but in different ways.
The best part of this book, as with all quality mysteries, is that the killer isn’t who you think it could be. That’s because modern crime novels have the avid reader pointing fingers at all the different characters throughout the course of a story before finally settling on the least obvious one. You won’t need to do that here. The killer isn’t always a close friend, isn’t always the guy who hired the detective, and isn’t always the woman close by his side. Sometimes he is just the lunatic we never meet.
A well written crime novel with some vintage 90s fare strewn about. I hope the movie, to be released in theaters this coming Friday, sticks to the 90s setting – I’m not sure how it could be done, while staying true to the novel, by moving it into the present time. Anyway, that’s half the fun.