The Strangler, by David Black
No month stated, 1974 Manor Books
Yet another of the crime paperbacks “produced” by book packager Lyle Kenyon Engel and his BCI outfit in the ‘70s (which I refer to as BCI Crime Paperbacks for ease of tagging), The Strangler is for the most part a slow-moving police procedural, but a well-written one, so absorbing in its unassuming way that its 224 pages fly by.
My initial assumption was that William Crawford served as “David Black,” given that Crawford wrote some of these BCI crime paperbacks (under various pseudonyms), and also given that the novel was very grounded in real-world police details, as if it were written by a cop (as Crawford himself was). But now that I’ve read The Strangler I have to guess it is not the work of Crawford; the novel is much too focused. The few Crawfords I’ve read all suffer from the same A-Z plotting, with inordinate backgrounds spun out for practically every character, no matter now minor.
There is none of that to be found in The Strangler, which stays focused on the plot and its central characters throughout; just compare to the similar BCI crime novel The Rapist, which was written by Crawford; that one’s a mess of extrapolated character backgrounds and arbitrary cop-world details. And it’s a boring, tedious novel, whereas The Strangler is a fascinating read – if lacking in lurid details or any action sequences.
It’s a longshot, but if I had to guess from Engel’s writing stable at the time, my suspicion would be that Paul Eiden might’ve written The Strangler. This is mostly due to one particular (and peculiar) phrase which appears in the novel, describing one of the strangler’s victims: “The breasts…were so full and widely separated the outer curves of them hid part of her upper arms.” A variation on this phrase has appeared in each Eiden novel I’ve read, particularly in his four John Eagle Expeditor offerings, so my assumption is this was Eiden’s calling card, if you will.
The novel takes place in New York City, and the author was clearly familiar with the place…or had a helluva city guide. Our hero is Rocco “Rocky” Amalfitano, a junior detective in his early 20s who has just been placed with the Nineteenth Precinct as a probationary detective, given his solid track record as a uniformed officer. On his first day on the job the first of what will ultimately be eight victims is discovered in Manhattan – the corpse of a lovely young lady who has been strangled and raped. Amalfitano is assigned the case.
This is not a Dirty Harry-esque yarn at all; The Strangler almost reads more like a true crime book, focusing as it does on the sometimes-tedious grind of actual police work and detecting. If I were to compare it to any novel yet reviewed on the blog, it would have to be Midtown North, so those approaching the novel hoping for a lurid action yarn will be disappointed. Indeed, Black keeps the strangler’s kills for the most part off-page, cutting away just as he straps his belt around the throats of his victims. To be sure, I had no real problem with this – there’s only so far I want to peek into the abyss.
After his kills the strangler carves “Herostratus” in ancient Greek letters on the chests of the women. It takes a while for the cops to figure out what the words say – a college professor provides the clue – and they learn that Herostratus was notorious in the ancient world for burning down the temple of Diana so that his name would live on in eternity. The strangler too hopes his name will be remembered forever – for strangling 26 women in New York, going alphabetically by their middle names.
Black juggles viewpoints so that our two main characters are Amalfitano and the strangler himself, who turns out to be a computer worker on Wall Street named George Stafford – a tall, dark-haired young man who looks similar to Anthony Perkins, as is often noted. Gradually we’ll learn that Stafford’s mother was a heroin addict…and used to “choke the living daylights” out of her little boy with a belt! This then explains Stafford’s taunting “how do you like it?” as he strangles his victims. Having worked at the department of health for a few years, he has compiled a list of sundry New York-area women, with their full names and addresses, and has inserted himself into their lives under a variety of false names – all of them variations of famous murderers (ie “Dick Speck,” after Richard Speck).
Amalfitano is the only cop who sees this, which leads him into confrontations with the older, veteran, more cynical cops in the precinct, in particular Captain Gregory, who flat-out despises Amalfitano and mocks him in front of everyone. An interesting thing about Amalfitano is that, despite being a junior detective, he doesn’t take any shit. Some of the most entertaining parts of The Strangler are when Amalfitano snaps at Captain Gregory, refusing to lie down and be walked over. Amalfitano is indeed an interesting character – he has no sense of sarcasm, or even much of a sense of humor, and is driven to stop the strangler case not out of a sense of justice, but hecause he’s just sick of the murders and wants them to end. He also encounters flack from his co-cops because he becomes somewhat emotionally invested in the case.
Another big difference between Amalfitano and the protagonists of the novels I usually review here – the dude’s still a virgin!! As is his fiance, Jeannete “Jimmy” Maloney. Both of them still live with their parents. They’re engaged to be married in a few months, and they stay true to their “no sex before wedding” vow, so there goes any hopes for any sexual tomfoolery in The Strangler; as mentioned, despite the incredibly lurid plot material, overall the book is pretty mundane so far as exploitative stuff goes. For that matter, the author appears shy to even use the word “fuck;” there’s a part where a surprised Amalfitano’s curse is rendered as “F –!”
A major factor of The Strangler is a ground-eye view of what detective work was like at the time. We go along with Amalfitano as veteran detectives walk with him from apartment to apartment in the crime zones, knocking on doors, interviewing potential witnesses. There are no chase scenes, no shootouts. The author was either a cop or knew one or just did some serious research. We also learn about fingerprint databases and portrait mockups and the various storehouses of data cops could then access. The job is presented as the grind it no doubt is, and by novel’s end the reader is as weary as Amalfitano himself is.
The chapters are long, and instead of “Chapter 1” and so forth, it’s “Victim One,” “Victim Two,” etc. A curious thing is that the women who become victims of Stafford are probably the most memorable characters in the novel. We only meet them briefly, but in some cases it’s enough for you to feel the impact when they are killed, as is the case with a vivacious lady who gives psychological readings to old movies. Others have weird hang-ups, like a self-hating woman who worries she’s a lesbian because she has no interest in sex with men, and literally begs Stafford to kill her(!), sitting dociley as he straps the belt around her throat.
Stafford himself is a somewhat memorable character; he’s socially awkward and gives off “leave me alone” vibes, yet for all that he’s able to get scores of women to be interested in him; some of them practically demand they go back to their apartments for sex. Stafford’s role becomes greater and greater as the novel goes on, and he’s given a lot more dialog than Amalfitano is. The author is very skilled with dialog, by the way; even an arbitrary scene in which Stafford gets in an argument with some bar patrons over the JFK assassination is entertaining due to the fast-moving dialog, despite the fact that it really doesn’t have much to do with anything.
The novel’s few moments of humor are due to Amalfitano’s lack of a sense of humor. In particular when he and his partner, “the moon-faced Ochs” (“moon-faced” being used practically every time Ochs is mentioned!), come upon a ravishing “Amazon” of a witness: Maria, a haughty German megababe who was friends of sorts with one of the victims and claims that she sees the victim’s “boyfriend” (aka Stafford) every day at lunch, as he works here at Wall Street and sits out in the park sometimes. Taking advantage of the fact that the police department wants her time, Maria demands a thousand dollars a day, and also insists that she be put up in a hotel fancier than the Waldorf. Amalfitano again proves himself an unusual protagonist for these sorts of novels; when Maria bluntly asks him to spend the night with her, he shows her a photo of his fiance and says no thanks!!
But Maria proves the means through which Amalfitano finally breaks the case, months after it started and eight victims in. Again he is mocked by Captain Gregory and the veteran cops, all who think Maria is an untrustworthy witness and who doubt that the police sketch made from her description of the man she’s seen is based on a real person – they think she’s made everything up to get more money out of them. But Amalfitano, about to be kicked off the force due to his latest run-in with the captain, realizes that so far all of his hunches have proven correct – and given that he also believes Maria, he figures this hunch will be correct, too.
Meanwhile the strangler is coming to the end of his latest list of potential victims, and desperately seeks one that will represent the middle initial he’s up to. Here David Black goes where I was hoping he wouldn’t – he makes it personal, but lamely enough it’s personal solely due to coincidence. Yep, folks, George Stafford just happens to have the name “Jeannette Maloney” on his list of potential victims, having met her months ago at a typing class…and just as Amalfitano is walking around Wall Street handing out photocopies of the drawing based on Maria’s description, Stafford is scoping out “Jimmy” as his next victim.
Despite how lame this is, it’s still suitably tense, as Stafford gets Jimmy in his car and goes increasingly insane, abducting her and taking her back to the home she’s about to move into with Amalfitano. Meanwhile our hero has gotten a postive ID on George Stafford and is calling up various people to find Jimmy, having found her name on that list of potential victims in Stafford’s apartment, which Amalfitano has broken into. The climax maintains the tense vibe, but I was seriously buzzkilled that Amalfitano, upon rushing into the house and finding Stafford wielding a knife and standing over Jimmy, only pulls out his .38, yells at Stafford…and then just arrests him! That’s it! I mean, I wanted to see the sonofabitch’s brains blasted onto the walls.
And here The Strangler ends, on an incongruous joke, as Amalfitano realizes that all the glowing words Captain Gregory has to say about him in the newspaper are the work of Amalfitano’s friend on the paper, putting words into peoples’s mouths (fake news!!). Meanwhile Jimmy insists that the reporter be invited to their wedding – the end. I guess so far as a Happily Ever After goes, it’s a fine ending, but one wishes for a more fitting comeuppance for the strangler.
Engel “produced” a bunch of these crime novels at the time, and I’m betting this author wrote more of them. The question is just who “David Black” was. I’m pretty confident it was Paul Eiden (thus I’ve tagged the review with his name), because that “widely separated breasts covering the upper arms” line is too much of a clue. Eiden uses it in every book of his I have read, and given that he is the only author I’ve ever read who uses this curious phrase, I’m figuring The Strangler must be his work.