Monday, February 20, 2023

Matthew Scudder #05 - Eight Million Ways to Die

Lawrence Block's fifth Matthew Scudder novel, Eight Million Ways to Die (1982), features the alcoholic detective contending with a compelling murder mystery. A young prostitute named Kim Danniken hires Scudder to convince her pimp, an African-American named Chance, to allow her to leave the fold. Kim is tired of hooking, and despite Chance's historically friendly actions and demeanor, she is hesitant about revealing her plans to switch professions. Once Scudder meets Chance, he realizes that her fears weren't valid. Chance is happy to allow her to leave. However, shortly after Scudder explains to Kim that she is free to resign, the young woman is found butchered in a hotel room. 

The plot development builds to Scudder truly caring for Kim and feeling remorse for being involved in Chance and Kim's severance. While not responsible, Scudder still feels as though he owes the dead client a hard day's work to determine who killed her. He works with the police, who are hesitant to receive his tips, and he interviews other prostitutes that Chance had employed. While Chance seems to be the most likely suspect, his alibi is rock solid. Who killed Kim?

What makes Eight Million Ways to Die resonate is that deep down in the city's grime, crime and decay, this novel centralizes Scudder's alcohol dependence. Frequently Scudder attends AA meetings, and challenges himself repeatedly to extend his sobriety into consecutive days. At one point, Scudder hits an eight-day streak. But, his dependence is just too strong. Included in Scudder's struggles is the series stomping grounds like churches, bars, coffee shops, and diners to keep the mood. There are also the obligatory conversations and thoughts about his ex-wife and kids. Some prior characters also re-appear in the novel, furthering some longevity between Scudder and his love interest. 

The book's title contains some weight, mostly emerging from consistent news reports and newspaper articles about various killings throughout New York City involving different methods of death. Scudder reflects that every minute of every day all of us are able to be killed eight million ways. We are all skirting the thin edge between existence and nonexistence each second, which is a true dark sentiment. 

If you ever had the misfortune of seeing the 1986 film 8 Million Ways to Die, starring Jeff Bridges, Andy Garcia, and Rosanna Arquette, I have to sternly remind you that this is not how Lawrence Block's novel should be represented. The film's creators lacked any real interest in what makes this series the very pinnacle of crime-fiction. Arguably, they had no idea what they were doing when it comes to film making, much less how to properly portray Matthew Scudder. Despite the talented cast, the film is just abysmal. 

Eight Million Ways to Die continued Lawrence Block's hot streak and makes for the very best of the series thus far. In fact, this might be one of the best novels I've ever read. Additionally, hearing the audio version of the book with the author's narration was a real pleasure. Highest of recommendations, Eight Million Ways to Die is an absolute mandatory read. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.


  1. Listening to the audio version of this book is like drinking black coffee in the middle of a damp, drizzly night while waiting for a bus from the Port Authority to Cleveland. Traverses the underbelly of NYC. You got it right: churches, bars, cheap hotels, failed marriages, cheap hookers trying to survive, and all wrapped up in a sense of moral ambiguity .

  2. I finished reading this novel on a plane and the conclusion hit me so hard I felt physically stunned. Literally dizzy, choked up and shaken. The woman seated next to me, whom I hadn't seen before or since, asked me if I was okay.
    Not a lot of books carry that kind of power.