A Stab in the Dark is the 4th novel in the Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block. As an earlier novel in the series, the writing is stronger and the characters more well-developed. I started reading the series with the 10th novel, A Walk Among the Tombstones, and I’d strongly recommend if you want to read the series, start with the first novel, read them in order, and stop at 10. It goes downhill rapidly from there, the writing, the characters, and the plotlines.
10 out of 10 stars for one of my favorites in the series. What I liked about this one was the clean writing, obviously not muddled by a group of writer friends giving the author feedback, and the unflinching look at what really drives people to kill. Hint: they’re not all psychopaths.
Matthew Scudder’s day begins with a man approaching him and sitting down at his table at his favorite bar. The man is Charles F. London, a man who makes a living selling insurance to corporations. He gives Scudder $1,500 to investigate the murder of his daughter Barbara Ettinger that occurred nine years ago. Why the wait? Because her murder was attributed to the Icepick Prowler, a killer who ravaged New York City for two months nine years ago and murdered eight women at home in the middle of the day with an icepick. What the police never released to the press was that each victim was stabbed multiple times in the thighs, legs, abdomen, and once in each eye. In fact, the eyes were the first to go. By happenstance, three weeks ago, cops arrested a mental patient named Louise Pinell on the streets of New York City and the guy was carrying an icepick. They questioned him and he confessed to the Icepick Prowler murders, all seven of them. He didn’t kill Barbara Ettinger and in fact he was under house arrest/observation at Bellevue Hospital for three days covering the day she was murdered. After nine years, there’s no evidence, not that there was much to begin with. Scudder is London’s last hope in discovering what happened to his daughter.
Scudder is like a dog with a bone. He used to be a cop, but one night when he was chasing two men who’d just murdered a bartender right in front of Scudder’s eyes, a bullet ricocheted and hit a little girl, killing her instantly. He was cleared of any wrongdoing and given a commendation. But he never got over it and quit the force. Now he works as an unlicensed private detective. That means he doesn’t get paid. He does favors for people and they give him money as a favor in exchange.
Scudder’s first stop is to the detective who recommended him, Francis Fitzroy. He passes him $100 and Fitzroy conveniently leaves his desk for half an hour so Scudder can read through the case file. Scudder takes notes, thanks Fitzroy, and leaves.
Barbara Ettinger was 26 years old when she was murdered and two months pregnant. She worked part-time at a local daycare center and was possibly having an affair. She had accused her husband Doug of having several affairs. After her murder, Doug remarried a blonde named Karen, moved to the suburbs, and has two kids. Barbara’s sister Lynn is younger, now 33 years old, and teaches the 4th grade. She was not the golden child and is divorced, having been married only two years sometime after Barbara’s death. So she’s bitter that her father still holds Barbara on a pedestal and that because of her divorce she’s regarded as the black sheep of the family. All around, Scudder has a tough row to hoe because no one wants to talk about Barb’s death.
Although Barb’s murder was attributed to the Icepick Prowler all those years, there were distinct differences. All of the victims were stabbed in both eyes; Barb was stabbed in only one. All of the victims were stabbed in the thighs and legs; Barb was not. All of the women were stabbed repeatedly, over 20 times; Barb was stabbed considerably fewer times.
Scudder first goes to Barb’s old apartment building and talks to the tenants. Then he looks up the old daycare center and the woman who ran it, Janice Corwin. She was unhappily married with two small kids and a whiny husband. She started the daycare center with a friend as a way to find daycare for their own children, but before the place even opened her friend baled on her and she was running the show alone. After four years, she decided she hated kids, left her husband and the kids, moved to Tribeca, and became a sculptor. Her husband moved to California with the kids and she never saw them again. She was loathed by the other neighbors who couldn’t believe she deserted her children. It takes Scudder awhile to find Janice Corwin, who now goes by Jan Keane, and when he meets her, they have an immediate rapport and slip into bed together. That proves to be the lynchpin that eventually destroys their relationship.
Scudder calls Doug Ettinger’s home and speaks with his new wife Karen who is very unfriendly. He takes a bus out to Doug’s new job, a sports retailer, and speaks with him. Doug is unlikeable and unattractive. He claims he never cheated and neither did his wife, but everyone else seems to know better. According to Jan and later Barb’s sister, Doug cheated on Barb repeatedly. He’d hit on her friends, he’d hit on Jan, and he’d slept with numerous of his welfare clients back when he was a visiting social worker. He just couldn’t keep it in his pants and since he was unattractive, he hit on everything until something hit back.
Jan tells Scudder that she paid Barb hardly anything and as a perk Barb would sometimes just take off for the afternoon. On those days, Barb was dressed to kill, so Jan assumed she was off meeting with a man not her husband. Doug had hit on Jan in front of Barb and Barb had already caught him cheating on her several times.
Scudder hits a dead end quickly and has nowhere left to go, so he remembers something that both Doug and Jan said about Barb that sticks in his mind–she felt like someone was following her after the fourth Icepick Prowler murder, which also occurred in Brooklyn. That victim was Susan Potowski. So Scudder looks up the officers who caught that case. Of the three responding officers, only one is still alive, Burton Havermeyer. Burt quit the force less than a year after catching that case. On his record was recorded “personal reasons”.
He catches up with Burt at his humble apartment in Manhattan and it’s obvious the man was horribly disturbed by seeing the body of Susan Potowski. She’d been dressed in a kimono with the front open and lying on the kitchen floor when her two children came home from school and found her. They ran from the building and ran around the block screaming until police units responded. One of the children was hugging Burt’s leg when he saw the body and he never shook the impression. He’d had nightmares for months and eventually quit the force to become a security guard. He’d left his wife and they’d never had any children.
That night Scudder gets a phone call from a woman warning him off the case. He recognizes the voice as Karen Ettinger and immediately calls Karen Ettinger’s number. When she answers, he confirms it was her. Unable to sleep, he gets dressed and goes to a bar and on his way home is accosted by a mugger who he beats and robs. By morning he feels miserable about it.
Something about Susan Potowski’s murder makes him think it’s the same killer who killed Barb Ettinger, so he calls Lou Pinell’s lawyer and they go to visit Lou together. It takes less than half an hour with Lou to convince Scudder that not only did Lou murder Susan, he is nuttier than a gallon of peanut butter.
Karen Ettinger is waiting at Scudder’s hotel for him and offers him $5,000 to stop working the case. He says no. She tells Scudder that her husband Doug was having an affair with her when he was still married to Barb and that Doug told her he wasn’t having sex with his wife when he obviously was. Now he’s sleeping with another woman, a mistress, and probably telling her the same thing. She says her marriage is over and she’d thought it was a good marriage until Scudder came and dredged up the past. Then she leaves.
Scudder shows up at Mr. London’s office to pick up a photo of Barb, but London tells him to quit working the case. Instead, it’s Lynn London, Barb’s younger sister who meets with Scudder at the school where she works and tells him that Doug called her father and said Barb had been sleeping with a black man and this news would come to light if he probed further. Of course Barb hadn’t been, but it didn’t matter. London kept Barbara and her dead image on a pedestal, although he doesn’t give a shit about his still living daughter Lynn. Lynn gives Scudder a photo of Barb and he continues his investigation.
He’s finally reached a point where the skeletons he’s rattled in that closet have to either stop rattling or come out. He’s in the neighborhood of Burt’s old house and so goes looking for it just out of curiosity, or maybe cop instinct. But he can’t find it. It’s not there. He calls Burt’s ex-wife’s phone number and discovers Burt has a son named Danny who was three years old at the time of Barb’s murder. Now why had he lied and said he didn’t have children? He questions the boy and discovers another thing–they live in Brooklyn where Burt lived at the time of Barb’s murder, only a few blocks away.
Scudder calls up Jan and asks her a few questions and she quickly retrieves her old records from the daycare center, not that she needed them. She has an excellent memory. Burt Havermeyer had a three year old son named Danny that he brought to the daycare center and he took an interest in Barb. So Scudder goes to confront Burt, who now lives in Manhattan. Burt knows the jig is up and sits down with Scudder and confesses the whole thing. When he found Susan Potowski’s body he immediately thought of his bitter wife. She was blind and very bitter about it. She was bitter about everything. He saw a way out; he could kill her and stage the scene to make it appear she’d been killed by the Icepick Prowler. But he was worried he would somehow screw it up and the cops would look at him first because they always suspected the husband. So he noticed the young woman who worked at his son’s daycare center and started following her. She would be his dress rehearsal. She was a perfect stranger. He’d kill her first, make it look like the Icepick Prowler murdered her, and then know exactly how to get it right when he murdered his own wife. According to Burt, he couldn’t just leave his wife because she was very bitter and blind and would make his son Danny’s life hellish. But after he killed Barb, he realized he couldn’t kill his wife and divorced her instead. Scudder takes Burt down to Francis Fitzroy where he confesses.
That night Scudder finally reaches Jan who is difficult to reach. And she explains why they can’t have a relationship. She had just come to realize she was an alcoholic and had decided to return to AA that night they slept together. Alcoholics associate alcohol with places and people. Now she associated Scudder with her alcoholism because they’d slept together twice and both times they were drunk. He tells her he’s happy for her, but really he isn’t. He tries going to an AA meeting, but can’t get past the front door.
The following morning he goes to Mr. London’s office to give him the news. London has already read it in the newspaper. He gives Scudder a $1,000 bonus and thanks him. And Scudder leaves.
This novel had something the others in the series doesn’t have, an overwhelming feeling of suffocating depression. Seriously. I felt it in my chest when I first picked up the book and it continued until I finished it. Novels don’t affect me that way. But in this one, Scudder notices how over the past nine years, everyone in Barb Ettinger’s world had changed. People married, divorced, moved, changed jobs, and the world went on. And so the emphasis is how deeply affected people are by certain events that are so devastating that they have to change jobs, houses, and people in their lives in order to be happy again. Scary, isn’t it?
10 out of 10 stars.