Book review: A Stab in the Dark by Lawrence Block (Matthew Scudder #4)

A Stab in the Dark

Nine years ago, the Icepick Prowler terrorized the boroughs of New York City. Eight murders were attributed to him, but when, in a lucky break, he is caught, he only confesses to seven of the killings, and has an unshakable alibi for the eighth.

The eighth victim was a young woman named Barbara Ettinger. With the police not much interested in a very cold nine-year-old murder case, Barbara’s father, Charles London, turns to Matthew Scudder for help.

People reading the series in order will know what to expect by this point (this is not meant as a negative). Scudder’s probing has him talking to and investigating the friends, family members, and acquaintances of Mrs. Ettinger, uncovering secrets and connections.

Scudder’s investigation is hampered by two problems. First, he finds that there are people who most likely had nothing to do with the murder who do not want the murder investigated for fear of what else the investigation may reveal. Scudder is even fired from the case but continues to investigate:

“When you open up a can of worms you can’t just decide to stuff the worms back in the can. There are a lot of things set in motion and I want to see where they lead. I’m not going to stop now.”

It is likely that Scudder’s belligerence and stubbornness in this instance are fueled by alcohol, Scudder’s second problem. Scudder was a heavy drinker when we began this series in The Sins of the Fathers, and in In the Midst of Death, Scudder could maybe just barely still be called a functional alcoholic. His descent continues in A Stab in the Dark, as his behavior becomes more erratic and his decision-making suffers. He hasn’t hit rock bottom yet, but there is little doubt as to his direction. And this time, Scudder pays a price for his addiction beyond the usual and expected hangovers.

A Stab in the Dark is a return to form for Lawrence Block and Matthew Scudder after the disappointing mess of In the Midst of Death. Indeed, it in some ways feels like an apology for or correction of the previous entry. When Scudder improbably breaks the case, the solution feels like a revised and improved version of the slapdash ending of the previous novel, changing the ridiculous to the possible with a full explication of why cases are sometimes cracked this way. Matthew Scudder may be going off the rails, but Lawrence Block is back on track.

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