It's 2008, and it's the 25th anniversary of the Lawrence Block's Eight Million Ways to Die. So let's put out a celebratory edition! I've never read a Block book, so I'm not sure why this particular book warrants a re-issue in a special hardcover, but it does mark a significant milestone in Matt Scudder's career, so maybe that's 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 because it's a very good book.
If you're like me, you'll have to keep reminding yourself that Eight Million Ways to Die was written back in 1983. I kept asking why the characters didn't 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 said by a cynical cop who claims that there are eight million ways to die in New York. While there are probably still quite a few, I don't think there are that many any more.
Block does immerse you in the seedy atmosphere of the New York of 1983, though. His imagery is quite 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 constantly 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 extremely 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. He's constantly going to AA meetings, commenting on the speakers but not speaking up himself when it comes to his turn. He just can't see himself in these people, despite knowing that he has a problem. There's an interesting running plot element regarding this bottle of Wild Turkey in Kim's apartment, something that keeps attracting him even if he's not there investigating something.
While most of the characters are fairly one-dimensional, serving their purpose in the story and perhaps having one or two identifying traits, Chance himself also stands out as an extremely interesting character. He finds himself being drawn to Scudder, telling him things that he would never tell anyone else. He's an extremely deep character, almost as much as Scudder, and we find ourselves wondering how he's going to turn out as well. When he disappears for a while, I almost found myself dreading that Scudder would find out he got murdered as well.
Block's hard-boiled prose is excellent in Eight Million Ways to Die, and it's definitely what will make me go back and eventually read other books in this series. It's 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, but he doesn't revel in the carnage. He doesn't hide from it, but he doesn't dwell on it either, except when Scudder himself does as he's trying to fight off temptation yet again. Block's dialogue is top notch as well, giving the book a noir feel that draws you in.
Eight Million Ways to Die is an excellent novel, and you don't have to worry that you're coming into it in the middle of a series. As a standalone, it's an excellent examination of an alcoholic detective's life. As part of a series, it's a turning point. Either way, you'll lose yourself in the past as 1983 rears its ugly head again. Scudder is great character, and this is a great book.