Saturday, October 16, 2010

Eight Million Ways To Die by Lawrence Block

Eight Million Ways To Die by Lawrence Block
Arbor House Publishing
Hardcover edition
, Copyright 1982

My life was a ice floe that had broken up at sea, with different chucks floating off in different directions. Nothing was ever going to come together, in this case or out of it. Everything was senseless, pointless, and hopeless.

This is the fifth novel in the Matthew Scudder series and it's been hailed as the one that propelled the character and the series into wide notability. But if you read the previous novel, A Stab in the Dark, you could see it started there. In Eight Million Ways to Die, the "unlicensed" NYC PI does really breakout and Lawrence Block gives us one of the best detective mystery novels that was published in the 1980s.

As he sits in Jimmy Armstrong's, his favorite watering hole, ex-New York cop Matthew Scudder doesn't take every case that walks through the door. He picks and chooses, and it has to "feel right." The money feels right when call-girl Kim Dakkinen hires Scudder to talk to her pimp about freeing her from his stable. After finally locating the elusive pimp that goes by the street name Chance, Scudder finds that this case is easy money because Chance has no problem letting Kim go. For him, there are girls getting off the bus every day in NYC that he can hustle. But when Kim Dakkinen is found brutally slaughtered in a hotel room the next day, all fingers point to Chance. Though still a suspect, he has an air-tight alibi and with the police lose interest in solving a prostitute's death, Chance wants Scudder to investigate into her murder.

There is really two stories (or three) going on in Eight Million Ways to Die. One of course is the mystery surrounding why Kim Dakkinen was butchered and who did it. Block actually gives us all the clues, but we miss them because we are absorbed by the second storyline in the novel, and that is Matthew Scudder's battle with alcoholism. On the wagon and falling off it, the day to day punishment to stay sober bleeds through the pages towards the reader. It's remarkably well done. Down church basements to sit in the back at AA meetings and never participating, Scudder is really alone fighting off this demon that has plagued him. It's powerfully written and I found it more interesting than the fine whodunit plot in the novel. Another thing Block excelled on was creating a NYC where the streets are gray, dismal and violent. He throws this at us by having Scudder reading from the papers or talking with a befriended cop about the amount of relentless murders that are occurring in the City. And this bleak atmosphere goes directly in parallel with the inner conflicts tormenting Matthew Scudder's life. Scudder finds himself not immune to this violence also. There is an outstanding scene where he is pushed into a dark alley, mugged, and has to battle with his attacker. After all he is one of the eight million living in New York City.

All I wanted was an excuse to walk through the door of that bucket of blood and put my foot upon the brass rail. I closed my eyes and tried to picture the place, and in an instant I was recalling everything about it, the smells of the booze and stale beer and urine, that dank tavern smell that welcomes you home.

I wasn't sure is I was rooting for Matthew Scudder in this one or feeling sorry for him. I do know that when I first read this novel it played with my emotions. I never read anything like this in a PI novel before. The novel is filled with well developed secondary characters, the best being the pimp Chance and his small harem of prostitutes. Add Matthew Scudder and great storytelling, and Eight Million Ways to Die becomes a monumental PI novel. It is that.

If you are going to read just one Matthew Scudder novel, this is the one you want to read. But beware, I guarantee after this one you will want to read more.


Badmike said...

I just finished the entire Scudder series awhile back, and this comes from the "sweet spot" of Scudder novels starting at "Stab" and ending at "Long Line of Dead Men". The concept of a P.I. going to AA is a good one, but it also makes Scudder a less falible (and oddly enough, less interesting) character (especially towards the end of the series).

And, for my money, "When the Sacred Ginmill Closes" isn't just a great detective novel, it's one of Block's best, period.

August West said...

Block bagged three great Scudder novels one after another with "A Stab in the Dark," "Eight Million Ways to Die," and "When the Sacred Ginmill Closes."

I'm not a huge fan of the character,but I really enjoyed reading these 3 novels.

John Oak Dalton said...

I agree, "When the Sacred Ginmill Closes" is one of my favorite detective novels of all time.