The Devil Knows You’re Dead is #11 in the Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block and the ninth Scudder novel I’ve read. It is by far the worst, considerably less of a murder mystery and more of the musings of a 50+ year old man going through midlife crisis.
2 out of 10 stars for this poorly written Scudder novel.
In this installment of the Matthew Scudder series, Scudder and Elaine are happily unwed, a term he uses often but not in this particular novel. Elaine is taking classes at the local university and so she and Scudder go on a double date with one of Elaine’s classmates, Lisa Holtzmann, and her husband Glenn. Lisa is pretty and Scudder is immediately attracted to her, although she’s young enough to be his daughter. Glenn, however, he immediately dislikes and he can’t put his finger on why. Cop intuition? The evening is unpleasant so they don’t make an attempt to continue their relationship with the Holtzmanns although Glenn keeps running into Scudder and trying to become his new friend. The reason for this doesn’t become apparent until later.
They don’t hear from the Holtzmann’s until Glenn runs into Scudder at a local bar and tells him Lisa lost their baby in the 7th month, that the child had a deformity which would’ve killed it anyway. Two weeks later, Glenn is shot at 10 pm in the evening outside of their apartment building while talking on a pay phone. The murder looks like an execution, three bullets in the chest and a bullet in the back of the neck, and a Vietnam vet who everyone assumes is homeless becomes the key suspect after being found with the four shell casings in his pocket. The vet, George Sadecki, is 44 years old, the older brother of Thomas Sadecki. It’s Tom who hires Scudder to find the truth. Even if his brother is guilty, he wants to know.
Meanwhile in Scudder’s personal life, his former girlfriend Jan Keane calls him up and asks him to come over. She’s dying of pancreatic cancer and wants him to get her a gun so she can end her life. Scudder immediately thinks of getting a gun from his friend Mick Ballou, a serial thug and murderer who keeps guns in his office safe. When he talks to Mick about it, Mick becomes very upset. He has strong objections to suicide because of his Catholic upbringing. So Scudder asks TJ to acquire a gun instead. TJ is a street kid, 16 years old.
Scudder does some questioning of the locals in the area where Glenn was murdered, which is also only a block from Scudder’s apartment. At night, that street becomes popular for transsexual prostitutes and drug dealers. One of the transsexuals, Julia, saw Glenn immediately before and after he was shot. So Scudder gets TJ to find her. Although Julia didn’t actually see Glenn get shot, she doesn’t think George is the one who shot him.
His next avenue is to call up the widow, Lisa Holtzmann, and ask her about her husband. She’s relieved when Scudder calls and when he arrives, she shows him a box she found in their closet. It’s a combination safe with $300,000 in it. The combination, which took her a few days to figure out, is their wedding anniversary date. They’d been married 17 months. Lisa gives Scudder the history of their courtship and marriage. Glenn swept her off her feet and married her a month after they started dating. They had a simple court ceremony and flew to Bermuda for their honeymoon. When they returned, he’d already bought the $360,000 high-rise condo they were currently living in. Glenn had told her a week before he was murdered that she shouldn’t worry if anything happened to him, that the condo was covered by mortgage insurance and if he died, it would be paid in full. Scudder tells her to hang onto the money and he’ll get her an appointment with an attorney he knows.
In the meantime, the weather is so bad that Scudder ends up making a lot of phone calls instead of knocking on doors, which is what he usually does. He talks to Glenn’s employer, a publisher of large print books. Immediately, things don’t add up. Glenn lied to his employer and he lied to Lisa. He told his wife he was working late all the time; he’d never worked a single late day because there wasn’t enough work for him. Scudder suggests that perhaps they should look through their books for embezzling and they do, but there was no embezzling.
Scudder makes an appointment with Drew Kaplan, an attorney he’s worked with before. Kaplan has Lisa pay him $10,000 to retain him. He gives $5,000 of that to Scudder to hire him on the case. This means Scudder is covered by attorney-client privilege and never has to reveal anything he learns on the case. It also means if the money ends up being dirty and hidden from the IRS, Scudder has also taken a part of it and can’t point a finger at Kaplan. Kaplan keeps the money and the little combination safe in his bigger office safe where the IRS can’t touch it. It seems a stupid ritual but one they’ve performed before. And Scudder spends the night with the widow Holtzmann, having sex with her repeatedly to celebrate.
The following day, Scudder is back making phone calls and learning more about Glenn’s real past, not the one he fabricated. He bought the condo from a foreclosure company and the previous owner was another corporation. Scudder finds someone who worked for that company and speaks with her. It seems the previous owner of Glenn and Lisa’s condo was a South American with a lot of money to spend. He paid cash and never lived there or rented it out. By calling Glenn’s hometown in Pennsylvania and asking a lot of questions about anyone named Holtzmann, Scudder learns that Glenn’s father died when he was little and his mother died when he went off to college. They lived in a rented trailer and barely made ends meet. His uncle let him work at his car dealership where Glenn learned his aunt and uncle were hiding money from the IRS. He left there and months later, his uncle and aunt were arrested by the IRS. Everything they owned was confiscated and he suddenly had enough money to go to law school.
After law school, Glenn got a job with a small law firm. One of the partners was an attorney for drug traffickers. He left the firm and a few months later, that attorney was arrested by the DEA for dealing cocaine. The firm went belly up and Glenn suddenly had hundreds of thousands of dollars in spending money. Glenn was apparently a career informant which explains why every employer he ever had described him as “not ambitious”. That’s because his real career was ferreting out information and turning people in to the federal authorities who paid snitches well.
Scudder calls Tom to tell him he thinks his brother is really innocent, but learns that George was transferred from Bellevue to Rikers and another inmate stabbed him to death. George is dead.
Like all old men going through midlife crisis, Scudder picks up the phone and calls the widow Holtzmann to see if he can come over. And they spend a few hours in bed together. Lisa tells him that her father began molesting her when she was nine years old. He sexually molested her in every way possible except for penetrating her vaginally with his penis because “that would be wrong”. And so Scudder does the things her father did to her so she sees him as a surrogate father. So here we have two sick individuals, the old man using a woman’s incestuous relationship with her father to get into her pants and a young woman who claims she enjoyed the sex with her father. (Now you know why my book club has nicknamed our “hero” Mattress Slutter.)
For the next few months, Scudder feels sorry for himself, does little on the case, and sleeps with Lisa Holtzmann and his girlfriend Elaine. While he’s judging Glenn for having so many secrets, he’s keeping quite a few of his own. He’s mean and almost cruel to Lisa while still engaging in frequent sex with her. He’s contemptuous of Glenn Holtzmann although he had at least a more honorable way of making a living than most of Scudder’s other friends, namely Mick Ballou.
Eventually, a conversation with Mick proves to bring clarity to Scudder who read a newspaper article weeks before about a similar murder to Glenn’s that took place clear on the other side of New York City. A pimp named Roger Prysock was shot three times in the chest and once in the back of the neck while making a phone call at a pay phone on the street. He was dressed similar to Glenn and was of the same general coloring and build. With a few questions to the right people, Scudder discovers rather quickly that Prysock’s murderer was another pimp named Nicholson James. Scudder also learns that Glenn had been snooping around Mick’s bar, asking questions about him. When he couldn’t get any answers at the bar, he hit on Scudder who is known as Mick’s friend.
Nicholson James is eventually arrested for Prysock’s murder, but no one wants to reopen the Holtzmann case. So George’s name is never cleared. Scudder continues to make daily calls to Lisa Holtzmann and go over to her condo for several rounds of sex, but he also tells Elaine he wants to get married and move into a different apartment with her. They move, he gets a ring, and Jan dies.
There are a handful of novels in the Scudder series that are well-written and worth a read. This is certainly not one of them. I’ve read some stinkers in my time, but this is among the worst novels I’ve ever read. It was as if the fifty-something year-old author Lawrence Block was trying to write a sleazy romance complete with transexuals, horny widows, and girlfriends with dirty mouths who happened to be hookers. It’s hard to like the hero when he’s taking advantage of a widow who just lost her baby and her husband and yet he treats her like garbage. Or a guy who won’t ask his murderer best friend for one of the many guns he has in his safe, but will send an innocent 16 year-old kid onto the street to procure one for him illegally. Or a guy who judges other people so harshly (like the victim Glenn Holtzmann) while keeping company with a mass murderer (Mick) and an aging hooker who has a mouth like a sailor (Elaine). Gee, what a guy. Not.
2 out of 10 stars. Don’t bother reading it. If I had read this novel first, I never would’ve read any of Block’s other books.