Adrian Whitfield, a prominent defense attorney, wants private detective Matthew Scudder to keep him alive.
Whitfield is the fifth person to be named by the mysterious Will of the People, who writes letters to columnist Marty McGraw telling him who he plans to kill next. Then Will kills the subjects of his letters. The point is, Will says, these are people who deserve to die, but cannot be prosecuted. So far, there's a man who murdered children but got off, a mob boss, an abortion foe who incites others to kill doctors and a black power advocate. Whitfield, Will says, has been getting evildoers off, and must die for this.
Scudder puts Whitfield in contact with a detective agency with the manpower to guard him 24 hours a day. The agency puts new locks on the doors of Whitfield's apartment and wires alarms into all the doors and windows. Scudder says the fee Whitfield wants to pay him is too much for a referral, but Whitfield says he can apply some of it to finding out who Will is. He can use the rest to cover pro bono work he's doing for Ginnie, a casual friend from his Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
A close friend of Ginnie's, who is dying of AIDS, is shot dead in broad daylight while sitting on a park bench. Scudder is puzzled by the amount of money the friend, Byron Leopold, has in the bank. Ginnie explains that he has cashed in a life insurance policy.
In a subplot, Scudder's assistant, a street kid named TJ is trying to get him to buy a computer. When Scudder is frustrated in his attempts to find connections between the victims, TJ explains that he could do this checking far more efficiently on a computer. When he tries to check the movements of a man he suspects of being Will using airline records, TJ notes that the person he gets to do the checking for him uses a computer.
Scudder's associates fail in their attempt to keep Whitfield from being murdered. He takes a drink of Scotch and dies. The bottle of Scotch turns out to be laced with cyanide. Then Will sends an open letter to McGraw announcing his retirement he won't be killing anyone else. Scudder feels that having been paid to find Will, he must do so even if his client is dead.
Scudder becomes suspicious about the amount of money Byron Leopold obtained from his life insurance policy. His investigation takes him into the shadowy world of viatical transactions the sale of a life insurance policy to an investor by an insured person who knows he will be dying soon. Byron, who is in the late stages of AIDS is a prime candidate for such a transaction.
As in any Scudder thriller, there's a lot of description of AA meetings. There's also a lot of description of the sometimes repetitive and tedious work of an investigator work that TJ keeps reminding Scudder can be speeded up with a computer.
Going further would give away the solution to the mystery, but it would not spoil the suspense to relate that Scudder eventually buys a computer and gives it to TJ to operate for him.
This report prepared by David Gordon