Itís 2008, and itís the 25th anniversary of the Lawrence Blockís Eight Million Ways to Die - so letís put out a celebratory edition! Iíve never read a Block book, so Iím not sure why this particular book warrants a re-issue in hardcover, but it does mark a significant milestone in Matt Scudderís career; maybe thatís why. This handsome hardcover also includes an afterword by Block, so fans of the Scudder series may want to pick this up to at least read that. For non-fans of the series, you can pick it up simply because itís a very good book.
Matt Scudder is an ex-cop turned private eye, except that heís not licensed. Heís also an alcoholic, fighting his demons both inside and outside the bottle. A young prostitute named Kim comes to him, saying that she wants out of the business and she wants Scudder to help her. After meeting her pimp, an enigmatic man named Chance, it all seems ridiculously easy. He has no problem with her leaving. But in leaving, she ends up dead, her brains splattered all over a hotel room. Is Chance the killer? Scudder canít be sure, as Chance hires him to find out who actually did it. As Scudder tries desperately to figure things out, he constantly finds the temptation of the booze drawing him away from everything, into the depths of the bottle. Will catching Kimís killer draw him back out? Or will the alcohol prevent him from ever finding out who did it?
If youíre like me, youíll have to keep reminding yourself that Eight Million Ways to Die was written back in 1983. Chance has a service where people leave messages. Scudder uses a payphone constantly, as well as taking messages from the desk of the rooming house he lives in. I kept wondering why they didnít use cell phones until I remembered. Also, the image of New York as a crime-infested city kept jarring with the way it is now. The title of the book is uttered by a cynical cop who claims that there are eight million ways to die in New York City. While there are probably still quite a few, I donít think there are that many anymore.
Block does immerse you in the seedy atmosphere of the New York of 1983, though. His imagery is stark, and he constantly has Scudder reading the newspaper, pulling out headlines and news stories about how certain innocent people were killed, and commenting on how these will quickly get relegated to the back pages as something even more monstrous hits the front page. This atmosphere weighs Scudder (and the reader) down, but at least the reader can put the book down if it gets too oppressive. What can Scudder do?
Scudder is an interesting character, and evidently one who changes throughout his series of books. His alcoholism has been a constant presence in previous books, and this is the one where it comes to a head. Heís always going to AA meetings, commenting on the speakers but not speaking up himself when it comes to his turn. He just canít see himself in these people, despite knowing that he has a problem. Thereís an interesting running plot element regarding this bottle of Wild Turkey in Kimís apartment, something that keeps attracting him even if heís not there investigating something. Heís an interesting contrast with Durkin, the cop who ends up helping him by providing information about the case. Durkin is a super-cynical cop who drowns in drink what the city has done to him.
While most of the characters are fairly one-dimensional, serving their purpose in the story and perhaps having one or two identifying traits (Chanceís other women are pretty much identified by a personality quirk or two), Chance himself stands out as an extremely interesting character. Heís into African art; heís not a rough and tumble guy; he doesnít beat his women; and he houses them in very nice apartments rather than having them walk the streets. Heís a sophisticated pimp, and he slowly realizes throughout the story that maybe itís time to move on. He finds himself= drawn to Scudder, telling him things that he would never tell anyone else. Heís a deep character, almost as much as Scudder, and we find ourselves wondering how heís going to turn out as well. When he disappears for a while, I almost found myself dreading that Scudder would discover him murdered as well.
Blockís hard-boiled prose is excellent in Eight Million Ways to Die, and it will definitely make me go back and read other books in this series. Itís almost a contradiction, sinking into the muck that is New York while also feeling slightly optimistic as Matt comes closer and closer to redemption. It can be brutal at times (as when somebody attempts to mug Scudder), but he doesnít revel in the carnage - he doesnít hide from it, but he doesnít dwell on it either, except when Scudder himself does as heís trying to fight off temptation yet again. Blockís dialogue is top-notch as well, giving the book a noirish feel that draws you in.
Eight Million Ways to Die is an excellent novel, and you donít have to worry that youíre coming into it in the middle of a series. As a standalone, itís an excellent examination of an alcoholic detectiveís life. As part of a series, itís a turning point. Either way, youíll lose yourself in the past as 1983 rears its ugly head again. Scudder is great character, and this is a great book.