When Ben Schutz died at fifty-eight of a heart attack, he was still enjoying the well-deserved praise he'd received for what was likely his finest novel, The Mongol Reply, a savage look at the human debris resulting from a custody battle. Ben had been a forensic psychologist by trade and knew all too well what he was writing about.
The Mongol Reply had been rejected by virtually if not literally every major house in New York. One day his agent called me and asked if I'd give it a read for our library line Five Star. Ben Schutz? Are you kidding? Of course. We made a deal straight on. I felt then and feel now that it was one of the most important books we've ever published.
Kevin Burton Smith certainly agreed: "This is not a comfortable novel, and many a reader might squirm with an unpleasant shock of self-recognition. But I think that Schutz, a forensic psychologist himself and the author, in the 1980s and early 90s, of a Shamus Award-winning hard-boiled series starring Washington, D.C., private eye Leo Haggerty, has returned to fiction after an absence of more than a decade with arguably his most angry and potent work yet. The Mongol Reply is an unrepentant, take-no-prisoners assault on the twisted and selfish games people play in the name of love, and the sometimes very brutal price that children (and ultimately, all of us) have to pay for their parent’s sins."
Following this we were lucky enough to do a collection with Ben. And then he was dead.
I happened to read one of his short stories this weekend and it was so good I had to pick up a Schutz novel. I decided to reread my favorite, A Fistful of Empty. I like to say that I read for character and that plot is secondary. That's generally true. If the characters don't work for me, the story bores me. Empty tells one of the most lacerating tales I've ever read and shows me a dozen characters I've never met before. And in the course of it all it details the end of a relationship with such force that it's difficult to read at certain points. He gets the pain and bitterness and confusion down with surgical precision.
D.C. private eye Leo Haggerty is working on a case that results in his girl friend being raped and his best friend being murdered. I'm not a fan of revenge novels. Most of them are predictable and too many of them are bogus. Vigilantes are often worse than the person they're chasing. But Schutz uses Empty to show us how revenge is as deadly psychologically for the pursuer as it is for the pursued. ,
The mystery element is classically composed. Haggerty must figure out what a group of skinheads (and his depiction of an obscenely overweight skinhead fascist is guaranteed to make you squirm) and a group of medical researchers in in a very swank pharmaceutical firm have to do with each other.
While the pace is relentless (it's a book you really do want to read in a single setting), it is rich in detailing the D.C. area and the real wold of private investigators. Schutz did his homework.
Ben Schutz deserves rediscovery and A Fistful of Empty is a perfect place to start.