A Long Line of Dead Men is the twelfth novel in the Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block. It’s the fourth Matthew Scudder novel I’ve read and by far the worst. Although many Amazon reviewers claimed Block’s writing improved with age, I can say exactly the opposite, but we all know Amazon reviews are unreliable these days. The writing is weak and the storyline meanders off on tangents quite frequently. Block seems to be obsessed with fifty-five year-old men going through midlife crisis, cheating on their significant others, having kinky sex, and suddenly becoming aware of how empty their professional lives are. I wonder what that says about Block. The entire first three fourths of this book was devoted to Scudder’s midlife crisis and frequent trips to his mistress, Lisa, so much so that halfway through the book I began calling him Slutter. 😉
4 out of 10 stars. Not his best. So far it’s his worst.
Matthew Scudder is hired by Lewis Hildebrand. It seems that Lew is part of an ancient club of thirty-one. They meet once a year, on the third Thursday in May, and read the list of all in their club who have died. They go around the table, tell what’s new in their lives since the last year they met, and they part until the following year. That’s it. When the club gets down to the last man, he selects thirty new members, all in their twenties, to start the new club which he also attends until he dies. And it goes on. Supposedly the club began in the Babylonia era. Or not. Lew’s problem is that there are only fourteen of their club of thirty-one left alive. Only four have officially been murdered, the rest a combination of suicides, accidents, and natural deaths, but he consulted a friend who is an actuary and their death rate is more than 10 times the norm. So Lew hires Slutter to do some investigating and find out if those suicides and accidents really were suicides and accidents.
For some reason, this case causes Slutter to visit his mistress more frequently. Since I’m reading the novels in the series out of order, I didn’t know he had a mistress. He’s living with Elaine and getting ready to ask her to marry him, but once a month he goes to the apartment of Lisa Holtzmann, a widow that hired him to solve her husband’s murder several cases ago. They’ve been having sex once a month for three years now. Lisa has a boyfriend named Peter whom she sleeps with as well. And according to Slutter, it’s very New York. I’m glad I’m not a New Yorker.
Slutter’s attack is simple, look up the suicides, talk to their widows, coworkers, witnesses, etc. and see if it’s possible they were not suicides. Do the same for the accidental deaths and for the murders. Sooner or later, someone will remember something. When he questions the widow of Fred Carp, he says too much about the club and she of course calls the only person on the list of thirty-one that she recognizes, famous criminal lawyer Ray Gruliow. Gruliow is famous in New York for getting off a couple of serial killers. He did it for the money. Although both were pro bono cases, he milked them for speaking engagements and books and made a fortune. He’s on his third wife and has no clue how to have a relationship. He’s sixty-five years old and has children from three women ranging in age from two to forty. By the end of the book his third wife has left him and his liver is failing from being an alcoholic. But he is compelled to gather the members together and let them know there’s a killer among them.
The most recent death is that of Alan Watson who was stabbed one block from his home in Forest Hills four months previously. The only witness was a security guard who found the body, a man named Jim Shorter. So Slutter goes to speak with Slutter. Like Gruliow, Shorter is an alcoholic and for some odd reason, Slutter takes him to an AA meeting. In fact, more than half of this novel in the series is entirely dedicated to the intimate details of AA meetings. Shorter in effect becomes Slutter’s sponsee and he takes it seriously. Shorter is also very interested in the case, a little too much so, and that’s your first clue that something is off with the man. (It was easy to spot from the get-go.)
Nine of the remaining fourteen meet at Gruliow’s house to decide what to do and speak with Slutter. They unanimously decide they want to keep the club out of the papers. It would mean the end of the club if it became public knowledge and no one wants to be responsible for ending such an old tradition. So they each give $1,000 to Gruliow and he hires Slutter under the umbrella of attorney-client privilege. This protects Slutter from having to reveal any information about the club to anyone, including the police.
Slutter is out all night with his friend Mick Ballou (a serial murderer), and comes home early in the morning to discover one more of the thirty-one has died, murdered in a freak taxi accident. He also discovers that Watson’s wife died in a freak accident, drowning in her bathtub. Since Slutter’s been trying to reach her, it’s an odd coincidence. When Slutter gets a description of the taxi murderer, he doesn’t catch on right away. Instead, he’s worried about his sponsee who hasn’t called in several days. He’s worried he’s fallen off the wagon. So he goes to Shorter’s apartment and makes the super open the door. Inside is a spotless apartment devoid of any prints or anything personal. Shorter has moved out and, guess what? His name is not Jim Shorter. Jim Shorter doesn’t exist.
So Slutter goes through the names of the dead men and discovers the same initials, JS, belonged to James Severance, one of the members who was among the first to die. He supposedly went to Vietnam and was killed. Mick’s little brother died in Vietnam and he’s been to the Vietnam Memorial to read his name. So Slutter goes to the Memorial and doesn’t find James Severance’s name. It’s just another long line of dead men. He has a sketch drawn of Jim Shorter and presents it to the men in the club who all agree that it’s James Severance.
Now that Slutter knows the killer–James Severance–and he has a sketch of him, he goes through all of the suicides and accidental deaths and murders and links a man to each of them who has the initials J.S.
The next part is easier. Slutter writes his phone number at the bottom of the sketch, copies it, and hands it across town, concentrating in Manhattan where Severance prefers to stay. Eventually a laundromat operator calls and asks about the $10,000 reward. Slutter and his assistant TJ show up and discover Severance is living across the street from the laundromat under the name Joel Silverton. He calls Gruliow and the others and puts their plan in motion. When Severance leaves his apartment, TJ follows him and Slutter sneaks into the apartment. When Severance returns, Slutter shoots him with a tranquilizer gun. He’s carried via a stretcher to a waiting private plane owned by another member, Avery Davis, and they fly to a private island in Canada where Davis has a cabin managed by a family of Cree Indians.
By the time Severance wakes, almost an entire day has passed. He is in a room with nothing but bare concrete on the floor, a bed in one corner, and a toilet and sink in another. Through the window on the opposite side of the room he can see pine trees. On his ankle is a large metal cuff welded closed. A heavy chain is attached to the ankle cuff and the other end is bolted into the floor. The club doesn’t believe in capital punishment but they also can’t take a chance that James Severance will be released by the police and continue his killing spree. So he will spend the rest of his life in this one room being fed twice a day by the family that runs the place. Slutter gives him a cyanide capsule as his only way out. And he leaves.
When Slutter gets home he proposed to Elaine and they spend their honeymoon in Paris. When he returns, Gruliow calls him up and asks him to go to an AA meeting with him. It’ll be his first, but his liver is failing.
4 out of 10 stars. I know I’ve said this already, but nothing happens in the first 3/4 of the book. The last 1/4 of the book was slow to unfold and I saw it coming a mile away. It was as though Block wanted to explain his own infidelity and midlife crisis to the world and pass it off as normal. That’s not why I bought the book. Slutter’s mistress is 30. He’s 55. He’s not attractive and he has no money. I found this completely implausible and was offended that I had to slog through so many pages of his midlife crisis. I wanted to read a murder mystery, not a weird sex diary.
Reading this novel was like watching a TV series go downhill. Once that happens you have zero interest in watching any other episodes, or owning any of the earlier ones either. This happened to be my fourth Matthew Scudder book. But now that I’ve read all of the kinky sex garbage about him, I can’t stand him. I have no respect for him. In the last book he completely let off a murderer, pedophile, and rapist. Now he’s taking advantage of a young widow and cheating on his fiance. And he’s now into black leather and S&M. I don’t even want to imagine an ugly old white guy with pasty white skin in black leather. Ew.
My recommendation: read Walking Among the Tombstones and Dance at the Slaughterhouse. Then stop. I’ve already purchased several novels in the series, so I’ll probably read them, but I’m not looking forward to it. 🙁