Unofficial private detective Matthew Scudder is hired to find a young woman who disappeared after coming to New York to pursue an acting career. Her parents have left messages on her answering machine that were not returned. Her father has come to New York and found she moved out of her furnished room. Oddly, she left her linens on the bed and her answering machine.
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Scudder discovers that Paula Hoeldtke didn't have her phone shut off until nearly a week after she had moved out of her room. She was well liked at work, and the producers of the few plays she was able to find parts in thought well of her. But there's little to explain why she disappeared.
In a subplot, Scudder befriends Eddie Dunphy, a former small-time hoodlum he meets in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Dunphy fears the fifth step in the AA program, a confession of the wrongs he has committed.
But Eddie turns up dead, apparently the victim of a form of asphyxiation while masturbating that often goes wrong. He appears to have partially hanged himself but lost control and passed out. Scudder tries to find out what it was that Eddie wanted to tell him. He seeks out Eddie's criminal boss, the butcher Mick Ballou. After spending a long evening talking to Ballou, the butcher asks how he can get in touch with Scudder. Matt offers him one of the cards he carries with Paula's picture on one side and his name and telephone number on the other. Surprisingly, Ballou shows an interest in the picture, then tries to cover it up. Scudder realizes that there's a connection between Paula's disappearance and Eddie's death, which he concludes was not an accident or suicide.
That connection, plus his gradually increasing suspicion of Eddie's landlady, with whom Scudder has begun an affair, pulls the seemingly unconnected strands together in a way that solves both murders.
The review of this Book prepared by David Gordon