Since I discovered Lawrence Block a few years ago I’ve read a lot of his novels and was a bit surprised to find I haven’t reviewed one yet. Eight Million Ways to Die is the fifth in the Matt Scudder series. It’s one of my favourites and the audiobook is narrated by the man himself!
I must admit I approached it with some trepidation. Which of us hasn’t sat through a live author reading on a hard seat with a fixed grin, as they mumble and shuffle their papers, longing for it to end so we can get to the bar? Often authors aren’t great performers and can’t project the music that’s in their head. In this case, though, Block did something more. His prose is very distinctive and he captured the rhythm and the downbeat mood just as I heard it in my head.
Scudder is a rootless former cop turned unlicensed investigator, living in a cheap motel. A prostitute called Kim wants to leave her pimp but is afraid to tell him, so she enlists Scudder’s help. The first thing Scudder has to do is find the enigmatic man, who is known only as Chance and appears to have no regular routine or social circle. When Kim is murdered, Scudder feels that he failed her and is determined to find her killer.
While the Scudder novels are firmly rooted in New York, many have a timeless quality to them. Often the only thing that reminds me they are not contemporary is the technology (in the early books Scudder spends a lot of time feeding dimes into payphones). Eight Million Ways to Die was first published in 1982 and it vividly portrays that period in New York’s history, when crime was out of hand, the news was full of senseless killings, and danger felt both ubiquitous and unavoidable.
Against this backdrop, Scudder is trying to fashion a new life for himself, one where he knows what is right and manages to do it. Drink and bars have always been a big part of Scudder’s story, but this is the first book in the series where he acknowledges his alcoholism.
At the centre of the crime and chaos of the city, the case and his attendance at AA give him a kind of structure and safety. The stories from the newspapers and from the people he questions in his investigation are interspersed with the stories from the people at AA meetings, though Scudder is not yet ready to share his own.
For me this is one of the most atmospheric Scudder novels and hearing it read by the author makes it even more special. It resonates today. The cacophony of headlines threatening to overwhelm Scudder are like the continual intrusive beeps and tweets of social media.
Scudder tells a man at AA that he is struggling to cope with all the bad news in the papers. The man suggests he just stops reading them.
Enjoyed this? Listen to Lawrence Block on the Moment podcast which is fascinating as much for what he doesn’t say about how his own experience informs his writing.