"I'M NOT as quick to play God as I used to be," is the plaint of Matthew Scudder, the rule-bending New York ex-cop and sometime private detective in A Ticket to the Boneyard (Morrow, $18.95), Lawrence Block's beautifully modulated and absolutely riveting tale of Scudder's run-in with a misogynistic psychopath. "Whether or not there's a God, it's beginning to dawn on me that I'm not him," Scudder realizes, after the murderous creep he framed and sent to prison 12 years earlier comes back and vows to torture and kill every woman in Scudder's life: a call-girl pal, his ex-wife, a female buddy from one of Scudder's Alcoholics Anonymous groups, even a total stranger with the same name as Scudder's.
Moral complexity has always been prominent in this stimulating and vastly enjoyable series featuring the thinking person's Dirty Harry, and never more so than in A Ticket to the Boneyard, where the justice system fails (the police won't go after a man who terrorizes prostitutes because they know no jury will convict him), and Scudder discovers that his anguished vigilantism only results in more carnage. In a helpless rage over his inability to catch the monstrous James Leo Motley, Scudder even beats up an obnoxious jerk ruining the Central Park peace with his boom box.
In a Scudder novel -- this is the eighth -- the social contract is constantly examined and re-examined, always thoughtfully, and in a setting -- usually the Upper West Side, Greenwich Village and the shadowy gin mills of Hell's Kitchen -- that Block evokes with the same memorable pungency Elmore Leonard brings to his books set in Detroit and seedy South Florida. Block also uses the AA ethos as interestingly as Leonard did in his earliest Detroit tales, and in a way similar to Tony Hillerman's use of Navajo myths in his plots. At one critical point, Scudder sets up a "two-step program: A -- just turn over the small stuff. B -- it's all small stuff," and goes methodically to work.
There's a lot of off-hand philosophizing in a Scudder book, none of it overly pretentious, much of it triggered by the absurdity of city life. Scudder's thought about a young man on his way to church who is crushed on the sidewalk by a corpse plummeting 20 stories is this: "Life, I'd heard someone say, is a comedy for those who think and a tragedy for those who feel. It seemed to me that it was both at once, even for those of us who don't do much of either." In A Ticket to the Boneyard, you find Block's usual good writing, plus nonstop tension and a finish that will leave you bug-eyed. Block is terrific.
Chandler in Dallas
TURNAROUND JACK (Morrow, $18.95), the second well-crafted Jack Kyle mystery by former Dallas policeman Richard Abshire, is so self-contentedly Raymond Chandleresque in its style and outlook that Abshire even refers to Philip Marlowe in his opening line when, like Marlowe, in The Big Sleep, Jack Kyle is "sober and doesn't care who knows it" as he "calls on a million dollars." In Kyle's case it's a Cypriot businessman in Dallas named Guy Borodin who wants his wayward wife followed and a photographic record made of her love affairs. Kyle obliges and, like Marlowe, eventually is used by his client for even meaner purposes. Kyle finds himself embroiled in a scheme by a foreign owner to make off with a computer chip so advanced it can practically fly an airplane all by itself. The U.S. Customs Service gets involved in sifting through the mare's nest of greed and loyalties-for-sale, but it's ex-cop Kyle who is equipped with the mix of intuition and a street cop's patient methodology that pays off in the end.
Abshire's intricate plot is fun to follow, but the real attraction in Turnaround Jack is Abshire's detective, who is entertainingly cranky, like Marlowe, without being downright misanthropic. "Computers and I," he says, "did not get along at all, my only experience with them being limited to surreal spats with one or another utility company over their allegations that I had made too many calls to Bombay or might have flushed my toilet a million times a day for a month." One conspicuous departure from the Marlowe-like worldview is Abshire's picture of the Dallas Police Department as an impeccable institution. This is out of character for crotchety social critic Kyle and not a credible depiction for anybody who has seen "The Thin Blue Line."
And Justice for All
JAY BRANDON, another Texan working in the real-life justice system, is an attorney in San Antonio, the setting for Fade the Heat (Pocket Books, $18.95), a courtroom thriller about a district attorney's computer whiz son accused of raping a cleaning woman in the office building where he was working late. D.A. Mark Blackwell is nearly certain his son David is innocent, even though David's version of the incident -- that the young woman suddenly ripped off her own clothes, clawed herself and began to shriek -- was "an idiot's defense, the kind of horror lawyers swap in bars years later."
Blackwell's wife Lois wants him to lie, cheat and break any rule trying to get their kid off, and despite periodic pangs of conscience, that's what Blackwell does. He subscribes to the view expressed in Brandon's epigraph, from non-Texan Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.: "Of relative justice law may know something; of expediency it knows much; with absolute justice it does not concern itself."
Fade the Heat is slack work in most departments -- characterizations are skimpy to nonexistent, the writing is perfunctory, and whenever you think things are about to be revealed to be other than what they seem to be, they aren't. But the novel does offer another insider's view of the law that is disturbingly forthcoming. Here is Mark Blackwell on juries: "I hated them. We put our trust in juries, but only because we have to. Juries all lie. They take a solemn oath that they will base their verdict only on the evidence they hear in court and the law the judge gives them in instructions, and they all violate that oath all the time -- casually without a moment's hesitation. I have listened at the jury room doors and heard them. Or they cheerfully tell me after the trial is over, 'Well, we heard that one witness say he was in the left-hand-turn lane, but Mabel here has a cousin that drives that road ever' day and he told her they ain't no turn lane . . .' Every trial lawyer who mouths shibboleths about believing in the common jury is a liar. No one would ever try a case to a jury at all, except that judges are even less to be trusted."
Fade the Heat has a glib, warm-your-heart finish, but its knowing view of the American justice system chills to the bone.
Rock Around the Clock
THE SLEAZY depths beneath the lurid surface of the rock music business was the setting for last year's well regarded Rock Critic Murders, by Austin, Texas, bassist and songwriter Jesse Sublett, who is back again with Tough Baby (Viking, $16.95), another smoky, twangy, finely-nuanced tale about the people Tipper Gore warned us about.
Martin Fender, Sublett's R&B bass-playing amateur sleuth and part-time skip-tracer (he's the only guy in his office who knows the real words to "Louie Louie") is suspected of attempted murder after the young woman he left a party with is found comatose, her skull crushed by Fender's guitar. Fender's aim is to clear himself and to find out why Retha Thomas, a sometime Tower Records clerk in L.A., had shown up in Austin and introduced herself to Fender as a "detective."
Retha, it develops, had been going around asking about Fender's acquaintance Vjick Travis, a fast-talking, volatile 320-pound promoter whose private record label, R&R Addiction, is about to be bought by a major company in Los Angeles. Travis admits he's being blackmailed -- the mind-boggling reason, not to be revealed here, will not reassure parents about the people who keep their children entertained -- and the trail leads to Bingo Torres, the South Texas payola king, the man who knows better than to think that even in the '90s "the reason something got played on the radio was because somebody liked it."
Among the several good things Tough Baby has going for it is Sublett's facility for reproducing his characters' druggy, semi-hallucinogenic way of seeing the world with droll precision. Barbara Quiero, an L.A. brat in Austin with her Mercedes, explains to Fender that Retha Thomas had a boyfriend back in California, and she "called him Bone. It's easy to remember, just think of 'Bum.' That's what he was. No job, no apartment, not even a car. And in L.A., that's really the lowest, next to being homeless, 'cause even a lot of them have cars."
A warning to ex-smokers: Reformed nicotine addict Fender backslides in Tough Baby, and he really makes you taste it. Be careful.
The Bootlegger's Boy
LOREN D. ESTLEMAN's Whiskey River (Bantam, $17.95), is not exactly a mystery novel, as his Amos Walker, PI, books are, but this breezy, wisecracking sage of a Detroit tabloid crime reporter covering the local gangs during the waning days of Prohibition isn't exactly anything else recognizable either. With its almost tender-hearted regard for thugs and their admirers, Whiskey River is most reminiscent of Legs, William Kennedy's soulful fictional portrait of East Coast bootlegger "Legs" Diamond. Kennedy, however, wanted to probe deep into Legs's Irish-American psyche and Estleman skates pretty much on the surface, even when he's weaving in such real people and events as the campaign to recall Detroit's crooked Mayor Bowles, and the sensational accidental death of 14-year-old Mary Margaret Connors during a gangland sidewalk shootout -- in 1932 such incidents were infrequent enough to merit foot-tall headlines and widespread public outrage.
Constantine "Connie" Minor, Estleman's brash and marginally corrupt columnist for the Detroit Banner, builds a career on inside dope collected from the mobsters he befriends by making them celebrities and holding back a good deal of what he's told. Minor's best source and sometime pal is rum-runner Jack Dance, born Jack Danzig, for whom killing means nothing because, Minor is reliably informed, when Jack's mother died his father couldn't bring himself to tell the kids where she'd gone, forever benumbing Jack to human mortality.
Whiskey River has a rambling plot involving gang wars, crooked cops and pols, and lots of gory killings, but there's not much real tension in this colorful romp. What's fun about this novel is the detailed social history. A postscript notes that the Detroit Banner did not survive the repeal of Prohibition: "It folded in 1933 after a period during which it became a grotesque parody of itself at its lurid peak, as when it offered cash prizes to readers for locating missing parts of a corpse some psychic had deposited in trunks throughout the city, treating it like a contest."
Richard Lipez is the author of three mystery novels published under the pseudonym Richard Stevenson.