While traveling in the west of England recently, I had occasion to dine in an organic restaurant just outside Cirencester. The restaurant was clean and inviting and resolutely wholesome, with a small but equally wholesome grocery off to the side. Everything in the building was radiantly, obstreperously organic. The apples. The pears. The potatoes. The kale. The waitstaff.
For lunch, I had some sort of organic vegetable quiche and an organic pastry. They were both quite tasty. I also had some coffee. Shade-grown, of course. Very piquant. As I was leaving, I noticed a used-book rack over in the corner. I expected the books to be all touchy-feely, Diet for a Small Planet-type material; but no, staring right up at me was a variety of thrillers, including a brand-new copy of Lawrence Block’s A Walk Among the Tombstones. The movie version of the book had been released a few months earlier. A picture of a very displeased, very determined-looking Liam Neeson adorned the cover. It looked as if he were already preparing for installment four in the series that launched the action-hero phase of his career, Taken 4: To the Cleaners. I snapped it up.
That night I started reading the book. A beautiful woman is abducted and held for ransom somewhere out in Brooklyn, then returned to her husband in pieces. Very small, neatly wrapped pieces. The widower hires Matthew Scudder (the central figure in many other Lawrence Block mysteries) to bring the depraved killers to justice. The killers, we subsequently learn, are ex-DEA operatives who have a history of luring beautiful young women into the back of their van, torturing them, murdering them, and leaving their mutilated corpses in graveyards. One potential victim escapes death only because she allows the men to cut off one of her breasts. She has to choose which breast. At the end of the book, when the killers are brought to—or at least very near—justice, the mastermind of the original kidnapping plot is left alone with the widower, who thereupon chops off all of his appendages, cuts out his tongue, and blinds him.
None of this sounds terribly organic. None of it. And therein lies my problem: A Walk Among the Tombstones is an interesting book, an engrossing mystery in which the private eye must track down the killers with almost no initial clues to work with. The plot is ingenious, the dialogue compelling. Had I bought the book in a bookshop, I would have thought no more of it.
But in an organic restaurant with an organic grocery on the side, one has a right to expect a unilaterally organic dining and shopping experience. In an establishment such as this, as one would expect, all of the vegetables and fruits and tubers and free-range chickens are organic. The milk is organic and the eggs are organic and the pastries are organic and the condiments are organic. The women who work in the restaurant have that organic sixties vibe about them; they seem healthy and focused, averse to letting anything mass-produced or synthetic enter their bodies. All of the furniture and the fixtures and the lighting in the establishment seem organic. The signage is organic.
Why then, off there in the corner, is the restaurant selling used books in which women get their breasts cut off with piano wire? How did a book like A Walk Among the Tombstones make its way in here in the first place? If it was donated by a patron, it can mean only one thing: Some of the customers have organic palates but unorganic minds.
Am I making too much of this? Perhaps. But this is not the first time I have seen sadistic books turn up in strange venues. I recently went through the paperbacks on loan at the back of a tiny church and found all sorts of novels in which people get shot, maimed, assassinated, cut to ribbons. And library book sales always have more than their share of violent paperbacks on offer.
For the record, I don’t mind churches selling or lending out violent books. The Bible is filled with hideous violence, and churches are routinely adorned with all sorts of violent images: crucifixions, flagellations, beheadings, and even, in the case of St. Agatha, gruesome paintings of a woman whose breasts have been cut off. Violence is neither unexpected nor inappropriate in a church; religion is all about the battle between good and evil.
The same can be said for libraries, which, by their very definition, house all sorts of books dealing with murder, mutilation, massacres, mayhem. Libraries have books about scalping, books about mass murders, books about serial killers, books about Scottish heroes who got hanged, drawn, and quartered. They also have books about the Gestapo. Quite a few of them. Violence is par for the course in libraries.