Popular alcoholic shamus Matt Scudder (When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, etc.) returns, still battling the bottle and the evils that drive men and women to it--in this powerful but far-fetched case, a kidnapping that dovetails into mass murder. What's happened to Paula Hoeldtke, an aspiring actress from Muncie, Ind., who's vanished into the rotten core of the Big Apple? Her dad hires Scudder to find out, so the unlicensed gumshoe scours Manhattan for clues, pausing only for a few closely detailed A.A. meetings and some talk with a ratty alcoholic ex-con named Eddie Dunphy--who soon turns up dead, an apparent victim of accidental autoerotic asphyxiation. Shaken, Scudder begins a passionate affair with Dunphy's landlady, a boozer whose whiskey breath sorely tempts the now-sober shamus, and also begins to visit the dead con's haunts--notably, a neighborhood bar owned by Irish mobster Mickey Ballou. There, Scudder flirts further with booze and also with danger, confronting Ballou about Dunphy's death--a confrontation that leads to unexpected friendship and, in a happy coincidence, to a clue to Paula's grisly fate: murder, by a lover's hand. And at nearly the same time, a second clue leads Scudder to Dunphy's real fate: again murder, for profit and at a shockingly familiar hand. An angry Ballou dispenses poetic justice to Paula's killer; an anguished Scudder turns in Dunphy's: cases closed, but sorrow rules the land. Woefully light on the detection--which here is arbitrary and serendipitous--but Scudder remains as compelling as ever, grave and compassionate and doing the right thing in a wrong world that Block makes real with street-fresh dialogue, characters, and prose. Not the best in the series, but still fine gumshoeing and a treat for Scudder fans.