A Walk Among the Tombstones by Lawrence Block is a novel from 1992 soon to be on the big screen starring Liam Neeson, one of my favorite actors. So of course I had to read the novel.
10 out of 10 stars for a superbly written novel with unforgettable moments, some absolutely horrifying. And if you’re looking to hear that scene from the movie trailers with the guy jumping off the roof explained, it won’t be. Because it isn’t in the novel at all.
Matt Scudder is a retired Brooklyn cop, now living out of a hotel room with a collection of odd friends including his hooker girlfriend Elaine and a fifteen year old street kid with no parents named TJ. On a night with a full moon, Scudder gets antsy and he doesn’t know why. He’s restless. Something big is coming. And then he gets a call from someone he met at an AA meeting, Peter Khoury. Peter urgently asks him to take a cab to his brother’s house, so Matt goes. What unfolds is a horrific story that no one should ever hear, much less experience firsthand.
Peter’s brother Kenan is a heroin trafficker. The difference between a trafficker and a dealer is that the trafficker is a bigger fish, a middleman who imports the stuff and sells big shipments to the guys down the line who sell it to the dealers. Kenan’s twenty-four year-old wife Francine went shopping for groceries and disappeared. Three hours later, he received a phone call asking for a million dollars. He told the kidnapper that he couldn’t do a million, but he had $400,000 in the house that he could give him immediately, so the kidnapper agreed to “sell” Francine back to her husband for $400,000. He told Kenan to split the money between two Hefty bags, to take it to a phone booth in Brooklyn, and wait for a phone call. Kenan told him his brother Peter was coming with him and that appeared to be no problem, although the two kidnappers took turns talking to Kenan and calling him all kinds of racial slurs. Once they were at the phone booth, however, they were told to go to another one, and then another one, miles apart, until finally they were told to leave the money in their car at the bottom of a hill and run to the top, wait five minutes, and return to the car. Francine was supposed to be in the car, but she wasn’t. They get another call from the kidnapper who says there was a change in plans and Francine will be waiting at home. They get home and she’s not there. Another call from the kidnappers says she’s in the trunk of a car parked at the corner of the street. So Kenan and Peter go to the corner and find an abandoned car that’s all beat to hell. Inside are about thirty little packages wrapped in Hefty bag plastic and taped. Peter unwraps one. It’s one of Francine’s feet. As Kenan proceeds to tell the story to Matt, the body parts in the bags constituted what was left of Francine.
Knowing that the police would immediately suspect him, Kenan called his cousin who happens to be a vet with a small pet crematorium in his facility. He asked to use the place for the night and he and Peter burned Francine’s body parts in three rounds and then pulverized the bone into powder with a bone crusher. Kenan had Francine’s remains in a jar in his home. But he was too terrified to tell anyone what had happened to his wife. So what does he want Matt to do ? Find the guys so he can kill them.
Matt questions him several times and then takes him on a tour of the phone booths he was ordered to on that fateful night. Almost a week has passed, Francine’s parts are cremated, and the stolen car her body parts were found in is now sitting in a police impound lot, presumably devoid of any further use. The only evidence Matt has is Kenan’s account of events, at least so far. What he learns is that the two kidnappers are both racists and both especially hateful of anyone in the drug trade. They followed Francine in a blue van from her home and to three grocery stores. It was the last one where they walked up to her, flashed fake badges, and dragged her into the van. Witnesses thought they had just robbed a store and so no one paid much attention to the license plate number. The kidnappers were dressed alike in work clothes, like delivery men, and the van had been temporarily painted with a business sign that was fictitious. In other words, they were experienced at this sort of thing, meaning they’d done it before.
Matt’s first instinct is that somewhere they’ve done this before and it’s been recorded. So he starts checking different precincts for similar cases. He also slowly gets to know the Khoury brothers who are pretty decent guys. Kenan was devoted to his wife and is utterly crushed by her death, blaming himself. As he spends his hours going through a series of what ifs, Matt closes in on the killers by being persistently dogged in exploring every avenue with the help of TJ, a street kid whose really good at spying on people.
There are no clues from her car which the killers never touched. There are few eyewitnesses and they didn’t understand what they were seeing. Since the men were dressed like deliverymen, they were virtually invisible. There is no body with forensic evidence. The killers had a vast knowledge of Brooklyn and an even better knowledge of those six phone booths they sent Kenan and Peter to.
Matt does three things.
(1) Has Kenan call other traffickers and warn them that someone is going around kidnapping wives. He tells them he received threats and flew Francine out of the country to keep her safe. Of course, in reality she is already dead.
(2) Tells his street contacts to get word out that he’s looking for anyone spending a lot of cash since the killers now have $400,000.
(3) Asks a friend at the precinct to search for similar MOs/cases and send him the results.
#2 turns out to have a couple of red herrings, not the killers. #1 doesn’t turn up any leads until almost the end of the novel. #3 turns up a young schoolteacher raped, tortured, mutilated, and murdered, then dumped in a Brooklyn golf course. Her name was Marie Gotteskind. Matt gets his friend at the precinct to get a fax copy of her file. Like Francine, Marie was abducted while shopping. She was petite, like Francine, but a blonde not a brunette, fair-skinned not olive-skinned. So these guys have a type of women they are looking for. Marie was unmarried and lived with her parents. She was abducted by two men wearing work uniforms who took off with her in a truck. There was no ransom demand for Marie and they didn’t cut her into pieces. They tortured her, raped her, and beat her, then they cut off her thumb and first finger and inserted them into her anus and vagina. She had been repeatedly raped by two assailants in every orifice and died from multiple stab wounds.
Now that Matt has at least one other victim, he starts focusing on the pay phones because of something that TJ mentions. New York City has removed all the phone number cards from pay phones in the city because they don’t want drug dealers using those phones to do their deals. But the killers knew the phone numbers. How’d they know that? He calls the phone company and also tries to get the calls made to Kenan’s house phone the day of the kidnapping. But the phone company has no means to extract this information. It is beyond the system’s capabilities. Give them a number, and they can tell you what phone calls were made FROM that number in the past 60 days. That’s all.
Matt comes up with a brainstorm to try to find previous victims of the killers, possibly a victim who survived. He poses as a reporter doing a piece on victims of rape and mutilation and calls several precinct sex crimes units looking for women who would want to discuss what happened to them anonymously. When this doesn’t sound convincing enough, Elaine volunteers to do it and comes up with a different story. She is the assistant to a famous actress who is playing the role of a woman who is brutally raped and mutilated. This actress would love to speak to victims of a similar crime and would be willing to pay generously. The victim would be cited as a resource in the film or could remain anonymous, her choice.
His next step is to go to the library and go through six months worth of old newspapers on microfilm, looking for women’s bodies dumped in cemeteries or golf courses. Any women who were raped and mutilated. Especially a woman who is dismembered. He comes across one, a female student at Brooklyn College whose body was found in a Brooklyn Cemetery. The article stated she was subjected to sexual assault and sexual mutilation, so Matt calls up the precinct that investigated and gets the lead detective, the son of an old colleague. Detective John Kelly is kind of a hardass and reluctant to tell Matt anything. But with enough hints, Matt draws him out and gets him to reveal enough details of the case to establish a connection. The Brooklyn College student’s name was Leila Alvarez. Leila also had a finger amputated and inserted into her anus. Just like Marie. But there was another mutilation. One of her breast’s was missing, amputated with piano wire like a garrote. Matt gives Kelly the name of the other victim, Gotteskind, and makes up a story about his interest in the case.
Matt’s next clue comes from TJ’s friends the Kongs. The Kongs are two teenage middle-class kids, Jimmy Hong and David King, who are computer hackers. They know how to break into the phone company’s computer system and get any information Matt needs. So Matt books an expensive hotel room, pays the kids for the gear they need, and they spent the next evening holed up in the hotel room hacking the phone company’s computer system. Three interconnected computer software systems run the phone company. They hack all three layers and get a list of phone numbers that called Kenan’s house that horrible day. All of the phone calls to Kenan from the kidnappers came from phone booths within a small area of Brooklyn. Two of those calls came from the same pay phone, one inside of a laundromat in Sunset Park. Matt figures that after the killers had the ransom money they knew that Kenan hadn’t called the police and his phones weren’t bugged, so they actually called closer from home–the laundromat pay phone.
When they finish at the hotel, Matt gets a call from Elaine who also has great news. A girl called who was mutilated the same way as Leila Alvarez. Her name is Pam Cassidy and she was also abducted by two men and taken in a truck to a place where she was repeatedly raped and beaten, and then one of the men, the one named Ray, took out a piano wire garrote and sliced off one of her breasts. They dumped her in a cemetery. She also mentions the kidnappers obsession with drug dealers and anyone in the drug world. Matt arranges for Pam to have a pro bono attorney represent her and then they go to Detective Kelly to tell him about her case. Now they have three incidents, three victims, tied together by similarities in their cases.
But Matt does what any good detective does. He looks at the clues and hones in on what sticks out as unusual. The phone inside the laundromat sticks out. Two calls were made from that phone and it’s not visible from the street. How’d the killers know it was there? Because they’re from the neighborhood.
At this point, Matt turns over most of the evidence he has collected. The police have linked the three cases, but know nothing of Francine Khoury. And Kenan is disappointed to learn that Pam’s testimony at most would get the two killers very little jail time. Slicing off a woman’s breast is only first degree assault with a minimal sentence. Rape and sodomy also light sentences. While Matt focuses on who did it and why, Kenan also wants to know why they chose the Khoury family. He was not a known trafficker. The only trouble he’d had was with DEA a couple of years previously but no charges were ever filed. And this leads Matt to believe that at least one of the killers had probably worked for the DEA in a temporary position. (He’s right.)
Meanwhile Peter Khoury, who is an alcoholic like Matt but also a drug addict, falls off the wagon. Kenan notices, gets angry, and accuses him of being responsible for Francine’s murder because he’s always talking about his drug dealing brother at AA meetings. Oops. Peter takes this hard and by the end of the novel jumps off the Brooklyn Bridge and commits suicide.
Matt tells Kenan what he already knows–drug dealers make the perfect victims. They can’t call the police and they have lots of money, especially cash. And the strength of this novel is in part because of these little realistic interchanges between the grieving Kenan and Matt. Francine, ironically enough, was afraid of black people, but not white people. But her killers were both white.
Days later, Matt gets an urgent phone call from Kenan. He’s sending Peter with the car to pick him up and take him to Brighton Beach. What’s at Brighton Beach? A lot of Russians. When Matt gets there (with PJ of course) he discovers that a Russian drug trafficker named Yuri Landau has a daughter that was kidnapped from her school in broad daylight. Since Kenan had told him about his wife being threatened, he immediately called Kenan. So Kenan and Matt tell him the truth. Francine was not just kidnapped, she was murdered even before the ransom was paid. Matt tells him that they must make sure Yuri’s daughter is still alive and give the kidnappers an incentive to keep her that way. So Yuri lets him call the shots.
When the killers call, Matt answers. And right away they begin trying to manipulate Matt, refusing to let him speak with the girl. But Yuri has a million dollars for them and that’s very enticing. Matt tells him that he has to have proof of life or there’s no deal and then says he lost credibility when he returned Francine Khoury in poor condition. Ray tells him since Kenan sliced the price of the ransom, he sliced Kenan’s wife, but he finally agrees to call him back with proof that the girl is still alive, detailed descriptions and names of her last two dogs. And sure enough, he does call back with that information. Meanwhile Matt has sent TJ to the laundromat where he watches the white guy making the phone calls and gets the license plate and make of his car. They run it through the DMV and get a name and address and phone number. But Raymond Callander no longer lives at that address in Queens and his phone has been disconnected.
Matt arranges for the exchange to take place at a Brooklyn cemetery, the same one where the Alvarez girl was dumped. He tells Ray that he knows his name, address, etc. This gives Ray even more incentive to keep the girl alive because he’s going to need the million to make a good run for it. Yuri and his two bodyguards, Matt, TJ, Kenan, and Peter all go each armed with a handgun, even TJ. They fan out and Peter keeps a sniper rifle trained on the killers as they approach. One has a knife to the girl’s throat. Matt shows them the money in unzipped bags and motions for the girl to go to Yuri, her father, but she barely moves. Yuri calls to her and she still is slow. Then Matt notices she’s beaten and raped so badly she can barely walk. She’s also missing two fingers. He’s angry, but he remains cool. The goal is to get the girl out alive and nothing else. So he lets them walk away, get in their car, and leave with the million. Yuri carries his daughter to a waiting car and they rush her to a doctor.
As soon as they leave, Matt begins letting information sink in. Ray was speaking to him while he made the exchange and he almost sounded human. He said he would take care of his partner Albert and leave town. He asked Matt to keep their agreement which was that he would give him a week before he told the police his real name. But Matt has no intention of keeping that promise. Back at Kenan’s house Matt has an epiphany. Yuri mentioned that he had two wrong phone number calls that day. Kenan mentioned the same thing happened the day Francine disappeared. So Matt checks the list of phone numbers that called Kenan’s house that day, earlier in the morning before the kidnapping. The two wrong phone number calls were made from the same number in Sunset Park, two blocks from the laundromat. Matt calls the DMV and gets a reverse phone lookup and they have a name, Albert Wallens.
Matt, TJ, Kenan, and Peter hop in the car and head for Albert’s house. They sneak up and look in the windows. Albert is dead in the basement, his throat slit by a garrote. Ray is at the kitchen table counting stacks of money. They break in through a back window and hold a gun on Ray. Then Kenan orders everyone to leave and come back for him in about an hour.
An hour later, they pick him up at the corner and he recounts how he tortured and dismembered Ray Callendar. He says he didn’t have any anesthetic and he didn’t have the heart to do it at first. But then he asked Ray a few questions and once he started talking, bragging about all the horrible things he did to Francine, it became easier.
I cut out his eyes so he’d never look at another woman. And I cut his hands off so he’ll never touch one. I took his hands off with a cleaver, what he used to dismember the bodies. I opened his pants. I didn’t want to touch him but I forced myself and I cut off his works cause he wasn’t gonna have further use for them. And then his feet because where’s he got to go? And his ears, because what does he have to listen to? And his tongue, because who wants to hear him talk? Who wants to listen to that shit?
Three days later, the police respond to an anonymous tip and find the body of Albert Wallens in the basement, apparently murdered by his partner in crime, Ray Callendar. Callendar, severely mutilated and maimed, is found alive and taken to the hospital where he dies two days later, unable to speak without his tongue. Peter Khoury, overwhelmed with guilt and unable to fight his addictions, jumps from the Brooklyn Bridge to his death. And Kenan Khoury sells his house, quits his business, and moves to Africa.
The side stories were really boring. I didn’t care for Matt or Elaine, but I liked TJ and Kenan. Yuri was predictable as were most of Matt’s cop and criminal friends. What really engaged me was the writing. Not flowery or full of purple prose. Very succinct and still descriptive.
10 out of 10 stars. Unfortunately the film changed a lot about the storyline and was very disappointing.