A Dance at the Slaughterhouse is the ninth novel in the Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block. As usual, Block’s writing is impeccable, drawing you into a nightmarish world in which children are bought and sold for the sick purposes of the wealthy and powerful.
10 out of 10 stars.
The story begins with the death of the pregnant wife of a news anchor. The couple lived on the fifth floor of a downtown building. According to the husband, the couple got off the elevator on the fourth floor, interrupted a burglary of their downstairs neighbor’s apartment, and were tied up and beaten. His wife was brutally raped and he was knocked unconscious. When he woke, his wife was dead and he was able to clench a stick between his teeth and dial 9-1-1. Sounds suspicious and that’s why the detective in charge of the case gives the woman’s grieving brother Scudder’s name and phone number. The brother, Lyman Warriner, hires Scudder to find the truth. Did his brother-in-law, Richard Thurman, murder his sister, Amanda?
So this is why Scudder grabs his friend Mick Ballou and goes to watch a boxing match down at Maspeth Arena, a rotting area of New York where the low end boxers go to fight. Thurman is a regular there, producing the Five Boroughs Cable Sportscasts every Thursday. Through the first few matches, Scudder notices a man in the front row with what looks like his son beside him. He doesn’t recognize the man’s face or the boy’s, but something about the man is eerily familiar. He watches the man, watches the boy, and watches Thurman. Later that evening, it hits him. The man’s gestures toward the boy, stroking the hair off of his forehead and smoothing it back, is the same gesture of a man in a snuff film Scudder watched six months previously.
Six months ago, a young man from Scudder’s regular Alcoholics Anonymous meetings approaches him with a VHS tape. It’s a commercial tape of an old film, Dirty by the Dozen. But ten minutes into the film it gets interesting. Someone has taped over the original film and the home movie is a snuff film. A woman wearing leather chaps, high heels, bright red lipstick, bright red nail polish, a leather mask, and red rouge on her nipples enters the room where a young teenage boy is mounted on a wall in a contraption similar to what was used in the Spanish Inquisition. The kid thinks it’s a joke and laughs when a man wearing a crotchless rubber suit and mask joins them. It’s as though the kid knows the couple and trusts them. The have sex with him, take turns giving him blow jobs, and take turns hitting him. Then it turns nasty. The man places a leather strap around the base of the boy’s penis so it won’t go limp, the woman straddles him, and as she is about to come, she tells the man in the rubber suit to “do it”. He takes out pruning shears and cuts off the boy’s nipple. Blood gushes down the boy’s chest and into the drain on the checkered tile floor. Fortunately, Block doesn’t get graphic with the rest of the tape, but he describes Scudder’s reaction to it sufficiently enough to make it clear the boy dies a painful and terrifying death, one he can’t believe is happening to him. And during this film, the man in the rubber suit keeps stroking the boy’s hair off of his forehead and smoothing it back.
Scudder goes to the place where his friend rented the video and talks to the manager who had no idea there was a snuff film taped over The Dirty Dozen. An old lady came into his video store with a box of videos, some of them mint and many of them rare editions. He bought the lot for $75. She claimed they were leftover from a tenant who had unpaid rent. No name, just a date. At the time, Scudder didn’t know what to do. Without a name or any way to identify the kid, the couple, or the film maker who made the video, he has nothing. So he stows the video in his safety deposit box at the bank and goes on with his life. Then the Thurman case brings him face to face with the rubber suit man.
Most of the investigation centers around the snuff film because there’s not much he can do about Thurman, except show up at Thurman’s favorite spots and hope he gets to know him enough that Thurman confides in him. He goes back to the video store, talks to the manager again, and gets a list of twenty-six customers who stopped renting videos there after the woman came in with the tapes. He’s pretty sure she said her tenant died and left unpaid rent. So Scudder goes to the addresses, one by one, until he hits the jackpot and finds a man on the list who died six months ago. Arnold Leveque was stabbed to death in an alleyway out of his normal neighborhood. This was especially odd because Leveque was considerably overweight and it was difficult for him to leave his apartment, much less walk across town to a dangerous neighborhood and get stabbed in an alleyway. Scudder speaks with Leveque’s landlady and discovers she’s the one who brought the tapes to the video store. That doesn’t get him far because she knew practically nothing of Leveque.
Scudder goes to the precinct that caught Leveque’s death to see if they have any information. They don’t have much, just that it looked like someone had beat them to the guy’s apartment and taken most of the video collection he had. In addition, one of the locals, a friend of Scudder’s, had given Leveque Scudder’s name. Leveque was afraid of someone and wanted protection. He said he needed a private detective, but he never called Scudder. Leveque had only one crime on his rap sheet. He’d been picked up on a sweep of porn distributors as a clerk who worked at a porn store. So if someone was looking for a camera man to film a porn/snuff film, Leveque would be a logical choice.
Scudder now finds himself in a predicament. He’s going nowhere with the Thurman case, which he’s been paid for. But he’s finding clues, slowly, in the snuff film case, which he isn’t getting paid for. He hires a police sketch artist to come to his home and sketch the rubber suit man, the boy who was with him at the boxing match, and the boy he killed in the snuff film. He makes copies of these three sketches and stamps his name, address, and phone number on the back of each one. Then he starts beating the bushes.
Among other places, he goes to Testament House, a place where homeless kids under twenty-one years old can crash for a few nights. The nun doesn’t recognize either of the boys or the man, but she takes the sketches and passes them around. Eventually the kids recognize the older boy, the one murdered in the snuff film. He was fresh from Texas or South Carolina and his street name was Happy. He’d been looking for an older man who liked young boys and he’d found one.
Meanwhile, Scudder meets young street kid named TJ who he hires to find out about the other boy, the younger one who was with the rubber suit man at the boxing match. He’s worried the kid might already be dead. TJ comes back and tells Scudder the young boy was being pimped out by a dangerous pimp named Juke. The kids who Juke takes on have a habit of disappearing. Juke calls it a one-way ticket. He warns the kids that if they don’t behave they’ll get a john with a one-way ticket, meaning he sold them and the john could do whatever he liked with the kid, even kill him. The girl who told TJ this is only 12 years old, one of the new kids in Juke’s stable of kid prostitutes.
Scudder is still working the Thurman case and getting nowhere. So he does some investigation about the station where Thurman works. It was recently bought by two Iranian businessmen who work through lawyers in Los Angeles. The station is losing money and the Iranians don’t care. That’s because they’re laundering money through the station. They have a German guy there, running the place for them. His name is Bergen Stettner. Bergen has a wife named Olga and she likes black leather.
Scudder’s connections aren’t just cops and ex-cops and street thugs he met as a cop. He also knows practically every bar owner and bartender in New York City. He used to be a drunk and he went to practically every bar at one time or another. So when one of them calls him up and says that Thurman is in his bar, drunk as a skunk, and he should get there right away, Scudder rushes there. Thurman recognizes him, but he has no idea from where. So Scudder shows him the sketches and tells him he’s looking for the man in the sketch. Thurman tells him his name is Bergen Stettner. He also tells him he’s afraid Stettner is going to kill him. Before Scudder can probe further, Thurman gets suspicious and stops. But he takes the sketches and has Scudder’s phone number.
The next day, Thurman calls Scudder and meets with him. He tells him how Stettner and his wife Olga approached him and made him their sexual partner, how they joked about killing his pregnant wife, and then they actually did it. It’s a little graphic, the way he killed the woman who was carrying his unborn child. How he raped her as he strangled her to death and she stared into his eyes as she took her last breath. And how he watched as Bergen repeatedly raped her before that. The three of them were a sick bunch. After he confesses, he hires Scudder to protect him from Bergen and Olga. After they killed his wife, Bergen insisted that he give them $500,000. He is to give them the last of the money the next evening. So Scudder agrees to meet him there and make sure everything goes well.
Now that his two cases have collided, Scudder is earning the money that Lyman Warriner paid him, so he calls Lyman and tells him that Thurman admitted to him he killed his sister. Lyman thanks him and tells him to call him when the case is wrapped up. Thurman doesn’t show at the boxing match, but Bergen and Olga do and they’re looking for Thurman. The following day, Scudder learns that Thurman’s body was found on the pavement hours before he was to meet with Scudder. It looks like suicide, but Scudder doesn’t believe it. And why were Bergen and Olga looking for him? Although Block doesn’t spell it out for the reader, it looks as though Lyman may have taken his brother-in-law out himself and done away with the expense of a trial. He has AIDS and he’s dying.
Without Thurman, there’s no case against Bergen and Olga Stettner. Scudder takes the snuff tape to the police but they can’t do anything. They’re wearing masks. There’s no body. It’s all supposition. So Scudder calls Olga Stettner and meets with her, telling her he has Leveque’s tape. He tells her he wants $50,000 and they have 24 hours to get it together. They set up a swap, the tape for the money, the following evening at 1 am at the Maspeth Arena.
There are only a handful of things about Scudder that are predictable. He’s persistent. If he takes a case he’ll stick with it, even if he’s working on it subconsciously, until it’s done. He expects justice. When justice isn’t served he will sometimes level the playing field or help justice along. That’s what he does in this case. He goes to his friend Mick Ballou, nicknamed the Butcher, and tells him about the Stettners. He also tells him they’re money launderers and there’s at least a million dollars in their safe at the Maspeth Arena. He’d snooped around the Arena enough to see the checkered tile floors and know the boy in the snuff film had been killed in one of the basement rooms where the Stettners hang out. So Mick, Scudder, and two of Mick’s partners, arm themselves with guns and go to the meet. Mick also has a butcher’s cleaver and he’s known for using it when necessary. The Stettners take Scudder into a room where they carry on their sexual fantasies. She’s wearing her black leather crotchless chaps and her leather mask. She has the red rouge on her nipples and she’s anxious to have sex with Scudder. But there are gunshots outside and Mick opens the door telling Scudder that there was an ambush at the door. The Stettners had two men with guns posted at the door who would’ve killed him as he left.
Bergen Stettner refuses to open the safe until Scudder begins shooting holes in the expensive paintings he has lining the walls. When he opens it, he reaches for a gun, Mick takes out his cleaver and chops off Stettner’s hand. He hits him again with the cleaver, this time between the neck and the shoulder. Stettner goes down. Scudder shoots Olga three times between the breasts until she goes down. And the four of them clean up and leave, one of them wounded.
One of the many reasons I like the Matthew Scudder series is that they always have a happy ending. Justice is served, one way or another. That makes for a great read. Scudder is likeable. He’s not preachy, not rich, not perfect, but not awful either. He doesn’t hit women or treat them badly and he would never hurt a kid. Those things make him likeable. But making sure justice is served? That makes him loveable. So I keep reading one Matthew Scudder novel after another.
10 out of 10 stars. I liked this one just as much as A Walk Among the Tombstones. Let’s hope they make a film out of this one too.
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