A Dance at the Slaughterhouse
Avon, 1992 (HC: Morrow, 1991)
First Line: Midway into the fifth round the kid in the blue trunks rocked his opponent with a solid left to the jaw.
A Dance At the Slaughterhouse is the ninth novel to feature Lawrence Block’s private detective, Matthew Scudder. Scudder, an unlicensed detective and currently sober alcoholic is hired to find out if (or how) a TV producer manged to stage the rape and murder of his own wife. Of course, as with most of the detective novels I’ve read so far, that really only describes the plot at the outset. Rivaling only The Long Goodbye with its twisting plot A Dance at the Slaughterhouse takes many turns before it finally arrives at a satisfying, thrilling, and morally ambiguous conclusion..
Scudder is an interesting character. He frequently attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings yet his best friend Mick Ballou is a saloon owner with whom Scudder spends long nights with talking and drinking (coke or coffee, Mick sticks to whiskey). He lacks the outright wry humor of many hard-boiled detectives yet he manages to have a way with words (his “way out here in the middle of the alphabet” comment when discussing love and marriage with his girlfriend Elaine, was particularly noteworthy). He has a strong sense of justice, of right and wrong, but that sense clashes with the reality of the justice system. There is a comforting stoicism to him that speaks towards a certain strength of character while at the same time hinting at at somewhat jaded world view.
As mentioned in the opening paragraph the plot of A Dance at the Slaughterhouse is a bit twisting wherein two large, seemingly unrelated mysteries wind up being totally related. In all honesty I find that element to be somewhat tiresome, and I haven’t come across it too many times in my reading, but I’d be interesting to read a detective story wherein the two major mysteries manage to actually be two separate but totally unrelated mysteries. The amount of coincidence that connects the two plots here, the first involving the aforementioned television producer and the second involving a child porn snuff film (I feel dirty just typing that out), strains credibility. On the other hand, once those connections are revealed they are actually quite sound and play out to satisfying ending during the novel’s climatic finally. I only wish that Scudder’s intuitive leap at the connection didn’t quite feel so random. Then again intuition and instinct are like the bread and butter of the private detective.
Indeed, given that the initial plot set forth (the investigation of the television producer) is set aside within only a couple of chapters as a chance encounter refocuses Scudder on his exposure to the snuff tape and initiates a lengthy flashback wherein Scudder details his past investigation into its origins. It is a little jarring to say the least. Regardless the plot set forth by that tape is compelling and Scudders reaction, a man who has seen it all being suddenly exposed to a new horror, makes for some heart-rending reading. In particular Scudder’s conversation with the traumatized woman who works at a local halfway house/homeless shelter for runaway teens/children is masterfully done; the distant cast to the woman’s dialogue is a stirring tribute to the injustice she is forced to witness on a daily basis. When the plots do finally converge, a slow process but I’m certain I overlooked several clues during my reading that others might not, everything seems to fit quite neatly. Fits neatly yes but, as it turns out, not neatly enough for the law.
Which is where Scudder, takes a page out of Mike Hammer’s book. Having not read A Ticket to the Boneyard Scudder’s decision to take justice into his own hands came out of left field; though readers of that earlier novel might not be so surprised. It adds an element of moral ambiguity that is the result of moral certainty. It raises the novel beyond a whodunnit (or perhaps a howdunnit) to something a bit more complex; a mediation on the nature of justice. Reservations via plot structure aside, A Dance at the Slaughterhouse was an excellent read on par with the best the detective genre has to offer. If you’ve never read any of the Scudder novels so far A Dance at the Slaughterhouse isn’t a bad place to start (it does spoil A Ticket to the Boneyard, though).