When the Sacred Ginmill Closes is the sixth novel in the Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block. It starts out slow but eventually gathers together into a pretty good story.
10 out of 10 stars for a great novel and a great ending.
The year is 1985 and Matthew Scudder is telling a story about 1975, ten years ago. The story involves three crimes that occurred in the same week, all happening to friends of Scudder’s, and how he was the one who solved all three crimes, two of which happened to be interrelated.
Scudder is with his drinking friends at an after hours bar named Morrissey’s when two men come in with red handkerchiefs over their faces and rob the place. They point the gun directly at Pat Finn Morrissey, looking as though they mean to shoot him, then fire two shots into the ceiling instead. Well, the Morrissey brothers are IRA. They keep a glass jar on the bar for donations to the wives and families of IRA members in prison. And the robbers were stupid enough to rob the jar as well. The brothers offer a $10,000 reward for the names of the two men who robbed them and they also don’t want anyone reporting the crime.
Skip Devoe is one of Scudder’s drinking buddies and Skip owns a bar called Miss Kitty’s with his partner John Kasabian. Skip used to be a Green Beret and he’s pretty calm, most of the time. His best friend from childhood is still his best friend, Bobbie Ruslander. Bobbie’s an actor and attends bar at Miss Kitty’s at night. Billie Keegan is another one of the drinking buddies. Billie is a fully-functioning alcoholic. He can be three sheets to the wind and have more common sense than everyone in the room whose sober. And the last member of the drinking crew is Tommy Tillary, who Scudder doesn’t particularly like, who sells investments by phone and apparently does quite well that way. Tommy has a wife in Brooklyn, but keeps a mistress in the city and the mistress, Carolyn Cheatham, sometimes comes along to drink with the guys.
During the same week that the Morrissey brothers’ bar is robbed, Skip and John’s books ends up missing. They keep two sets of books, the real ones and the ones they’d show the IRS if they ever showed up. Someone has stolen the real ones and if they turn them into the IRS, Skip and John will go to federal prison for income tax evasion. So Skip hires Scudder to help him get back the books.
The third crime that week is the murder of Tommy’s wife Peg (Margaret). Their house is robbed and Peg interrupts the robbers so they stab her to death. Only the two robbers, Miguelito Cruz and Angel Herrera, who are cousins, claim that Tommy hired them to rob him so he could claim the insurance. They knew nothing of the wife and they didn’t kill her. Of course, no one believes them, but Tommy’s attorney, Drew Kaplan, hires Scudder to help him find evidence against Cruz and Herrera.
After Peg’s death, Tommy abandons his mistress Carolyn who travels in the same bar circles as Scudder, so eventually the two of them end up in bed together and rather quickly. She has a gun that Tommy bought for her and she jokes that maybe someday she’ll use it on herself.
The circumstances of Peg’s death are suspicious. Her aunt had recently died and left her $500,000 richer. And she’d told friends she was divorcing Tommy. Conveniently Tommy had a $150,000 life insurance policy on Peg which pays double for accidental death, which for some odd reason includes murder. Tommy has a gambling problem and owes some shylocks money. This makes Tommy look like he had 800,000 reasons to kill his wife. On the flip side, Cruz had murdered before and he and Herrera had a history of robbing houses. The side door’s glass was broken, giving them entry, and if Tommy had hired them why would they need to break in?
Scudder talks to Detective Calvin Neumann who lets him read the file and take notes. And then Scudder goes to the neighborhood and talks to Cruz and Herrera’s neighbors. The day after that he goes to Tommy and Peg’s house and is drawn to the rocker in the attic where he smells Peg’s Lily of the Valley perfume. When he comes downstairs, the Brooklyn detective in charge of the case, Jack Diebold, is there. Jack is convinced the Hispanic cousins are telling the truth. He says he has a strong gut feeling that Tommy murdered his wife. The problem is that Cruz and Herrera have a lot of evidence against them and Tommy has a rock solid alibi with Carolyn and his drinking buddies. Scudder digs further on the case and learns that when Cruz was a kid, he’d wait outside of gay bars and beat up gay men, a common hobby of youths in the neighborhood.
Skip calls Scudder because the blackmailers finally called him and gave him a price for the books, $50,000. They’re to drive to a bar out in the boonies. Skip and Scudder take one car while Keegan, Ruslander, and Kasabian take the other. Before they even leave, Keegan is drunk, but he’s a fully functional drunk and smarter than the average bear. They get to the bar and Scudder and Skip go inside. They’re told to go to a church in another part of town, so they go. When they get there, they’re to drop the case on the steps to the basement, but it’s pitch black there, so Scudder knocks on the basement door and insists the blackmailers turn on the lights. They do. And they have the books, so they flash the lights on and off three times, signalling Skip to bring the cash. It’s the basement below a church, but the blackmailers seem really familiar with the place. They have disguises, masks with fake hair and beards. The exchange happens and then the blackmailers hold the gun at Skip and look like they’re going to shoot. Then they fire two shots into the ceiling and leave. Outside Billy has taken down all of the makes and models of the cars in the neighborhood as well as the license plate numbers so they don’t have to chase anyone. And Scudder draws a sketch of the blackmailers’ ears because that’s the most unique feature about a man and the hardest to change or disguise. Skip and John are just relieved to have the books back.
The next day, Scudder goes back to the church and talks to the Reverend. It’s a Protestant church and a lot of groups rent out the basement, including an acting group. Coincidentally, the Morrissey Brothers’ bar rents out their basement to an acting group. Both jobs are beginning to look like inside jobs and Bobbie is an actor. So Scudder goes over to the acting group under the Morrissey Brothers’ bar and looks through play posters. He finds the ears and learns the men’s names. They’re cousins named Gary Atwood and Lee David Cutler. Cutler’s girlfriend, Rita Donegian, is the owner of the car. Scudder has his cop friends run background checks on the men and also discovers Bobbie had acting classes with both men. Although Rita reported the car stolen, she didn’t do so until AFTER the exchange. And that means someone tipped them off about them having recorded the license plate number.
Several things lead them to believe both the Morrissey job and Skip’s robbery were inside jobs. Rita worked for the Morrisseys downstairs and Bobbie worked for Skip. The MOs of the robbers were the same–two shots in the ceiling, as though they’d learned a scene that way. Plus one of them made a comment during the exchange with Skip and Scudder about unions and moving props. Only an actor would know that.
Scudder gathers his drinking buddies together at Skip’s to reveal the blackmailers and he makes a point out of exposing Bobbie as the insider. Bobbie admits it. He owed $5,000 to loan sharks and his cut from the robbery was $7,000. Skip is furious. Why didn’t you ask me for the $5,000 instead of robbing me of $50,000? Bobbie’s response is that he didn’t want to be embarrassed. Bobbie laughs it off and leaves as though he hasn’t done anything and Skip can’t let it go.
A week or so later, Skip meets with Scudder and tells him he gave three names to the Morrissey brothers to collect that $10,000 reward: Atwood, Cutler, and Bobbie’s name. The Morrisseys, when they discovered Rita was Cutler’s girlfriend, killed all four. They were found with black hoods over their heads, their hands tied with wire behind their backs, and shot in the head, IRA style.
Tommy shows up in Scudder’s favorite watering hole buying Scudder drinks. So he asks why? Cruz hung himself in prison awaiting trial because the inmates learned he’d beaten up gay guys as a kid. They were going to sodomize him every day he was in prison, so he hung himself. Herrera changed his story, claiming killing Peg was an accident and Cruz did it. Tommy’s happy because he’s off the hook, but he gets a little drunk and says too much. He slips. He mentions Cruz’s beady eyes. But he never saw or met Cruz, so how would he know? And inevitably he slips enough that Scudder knows he murdered his wife.
Scudder figures it out and confronts Tommy. He drugged Peg, put her in the rocking chair in the attic. That’s why it smelled like her perfume. Then he went out drinking and hooked up with Carolyn, giving himself the perfect alibi. He drugged Carolyn, snuck off to his house, took his wife down to the bedroom after the robbery, stabbed her to death, and framed Cruz and Herrera who he actually did hire to rob him. Disgusted, Scudder goes home. Just as he gets there, the phone rings. It’s Carolyn and she says she’s going to kill herself because Tommy dumped her. Scudder rushes over there, but it’s too late. She’s taken the gun that Tommy got her and shot herself in the head, leaving a note.
For a few minutes, Scudder thinks. He cleans her drinking glass and puts it in the dish drainer, grabs a clean one from the cupboard, gets it wet, and puts it also in the drainer, making it appear two people were drinking. He cleans her prints off the gun, muffles the sound with a pillow and shoots her in the chest and in the face. He wipes his prints, takes the suicide note, and leaves, planting the gun in Tommy’s sofa. The police arrest Tommy and this time he gets convicted. Two years into his sentence, he’s murdered in prison. Herrera gets 10 years for the robbery and serves all 10.
Since I read the series out of sequence, I had heard the Tommy Tillary case before, but not the details. I loved the ending. Tommy was directly responsible for the deaths of three people. Unfortunately he was only convicted of one, but in the end he got what he deserved which makes this book entertaining.
10 out of 10 stars. I love poetic justice.