Showing posts with label Matthew Scudder. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Matthew Scudder. Show all posts

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.

Monday, August 29, 2022

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 100

It's the 100th episode of the Paperback Warrior Podcast! Tom and Eric discuss their favorite moments from the show's past three years as well as the life and literary work of pulp and crime-fiction author Cleve Adams. Reviews include a Matthew Scudder installment by Lawrence Block and a 1957 vintage paperback called Sin Pit. Listen on any podcast app, or download directly HERE. Additionally, you can watch the video version of this episode on YouTube HERE.

Monday, July 18, 2022

Matthew Scudder #04 - A Stab in the Dark

It is revealed in A Stab in the Dark (1981), Lawrence Block's fourth Matthew Scudder installment, that a psycho-killer wielding an ice pick savagely murdered eight young women. Scudder recalls the murders, a killing season that paralleled Scudder's own service with the New York Police Department. But, nine years have passed, Scudder is now an unlicensed, unemployed private-eye doing investigative work for favors or money. He's surprised when the murders are brought to his attention again by a stranger named Charles London.

London approaches Scudder in a diner and introduces himself using a reference from Detective Francis Fitzroy, one of Scudder's previous co-workers on the force. London explains that his daughter, Barbara, was the sixth victim of the “Ice Pick Murderer”. London reminds Scudder that recently a criminal was retrieved by the police that confessed to being the killer. He possessed enough pertinent information about the crimes to legitimately be the infamous killer. However, he presented enough testimony to convince the police that he did not kill Barbara.

In mournful fashion, London advises to Scudder that he is grieving again, as if her murder just happened considering the negative identification of her killer. He expresses that he feels a deep remorse for the way her investigation was treated, and how he has been blindly shuffled to different departments about re-opening her cold case. The police suggest there isn't enough evidence to warrant a new investigation, but London is experiencing mental anguish knowing that someone else killed Barbara for a reason that's simply unknown. He pays Scudder to look into it despite Scudder's warning that this could be a waste of time.

Scudder's trail is ice-cold, and weaves in and out of Barbara's prior life – former neighbors, husband, employer, and friends. It's a slow-pace, with a tepid action scene mixed in, but these Scudder novels emphasize mood, a certain darker ambiance than your typical gumshoe fisticuffs. Block drapes the novel in darkness and a bleak atmosphere that envelopes Scudder's own revered past and its similarities to another ex-cop named Burt. There is also brief comparison to a female artist named Jan, who suffers from alcoholism and a strained relationship with her kids.

A Stab in the Dark is another outstanding installment in the Matthew Scudder series and further proof that Lawrence Block is one of a kind. His character shading, plot development, and crime methodology are superb. If you aren't reading Block...well then you just aren't reading. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Matthew Scudder #03 - In the Midst of Death

Beginning in 1976, prolific author Lawrence Block launched a 17-book series starring former New York City detective Matthew Scudder. The series provoked two movie adaptations – Eight Million Ways to Die (1986) and A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014). Despite being the second series installment published - one year before Time to Murder and Create (1977) - Block considers In the Midst of Death (1976) the series' third entry. After enjoying the prior novels, I was anxious to return to the dark streets of Hell's Kitchen again.

In the Midst of Death provides a slight shift in the murder mystery formula. In it, Scudder is asked to do a favor for $2,500. But, unlike the prior novels, this one isn't setup as a murder case right away. Instead, a NYPD cop named Jerry Broadfield has been accused of extorting money from a prostitute. When he asks Scudder for help, Broadfield explains that he was in the middle of working with the city on exposing the department's corruption. Broadfield, and Scudder by proxy, believes that the extortion charges are an attempt to silence him. Scudder is skeptical to side with Broadfield, or do the favor, fearing that the truth isn't entirely clear. Later, when the prostitute is found murdered in Broadfield's apartment, Scudder's investigation becomes way more complicated.

Block's dark portrait of Scudder is one of the many enjoyable facets of this series. With In the Midst of Death, Scudder strains at the ties that bind – his former life with the NYPD and the remaining responsibility that he feels he owes the brotherhood. Broadfield's exposure of the department and his fraternity of peers, put Scudder on a balance beam of ethical repercussions. Broadfield's push to clean up the corruption and Scudder's protective nature of the business and its inner sanctum – despite how corrupt it might be. The author also weaves in a romantic fling with Broadfield's wife in a brilliant parallel of what Scudder experienced with his former wife – dissatisfied family, neglected marriage, disposable fatherhood. Scudder knows where the Broadfields are headed, but knows he can't save their marriage anymore than he could save his own.

In the Midst of Death is another gripping, extremely enjoyable installment in the series. Lawrence Block is an incredible storyteller and the book's last sentence left me reeling. Some authors strive their whole lives to leave readers with a lasting impact. For Block, it's a common occurrence.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Matthew Scudder #02 - Time to Murder and Create

Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder series of crime-fiction novels began in 1976 with the successful The Sins of the Fathers. Over a 44-year span, the author has written 17 novels, a short-story collection and a novella starring the ex-New York City detective. Scudder is a tragically flawed staple of New York's Hell's Kitchen, an alcoholic nice guy performing good deeds for average citizens. Despite being released after 1976's In the Midst of Death, Block considers the 1977 novel Time to Murder and Create as the second installment in the Matthew Scudder series.

The book begins by introducing readers to a charismatic informant named Spinner. During Scudder's career in law-enforcement, Spinner often supplied details closely related to a crime or criminal suspect. Through that relationship, Spinner formed a trust for Scudder that is evident through Block's opening pages. In it, Spinner presents Scudder an envelope with an ominous set of directions to only open the package if Spinner ends up dead. Shortly thereafter, Spinner's corpse is fished out of the river and Scudder opens the envelope.

Skirting around any potential spoilers, Scudder learns that Spinner was collecting monthly installment payments from three individuals. The first is a wealthy, productive architect, the second is the seductive wife of a rich New York elitist and the third is a wealthy entrepreneur developing a political candidacy. What do the three have in common with Spinner and why are they each paying him money? Scudder's role is to determine which of the three debtors murdered Spinner.

Block's narrative is grossly compelling as Scudder learns the identities of each suspect and assumes Spinner's role as payee. By doing so, he purposefully makes himself a target for the killer. With tight-knuckled suspense, the investigation digs into the mortal turpitude of each debtor. As Scudder begins to understand the payments, he questions his own vulnerability. Again, without spoiling it, there's a brilliant complexity to Scudder's relationship with the architect. Scudder's own personal tragedy closely aligns with that portion of the narrative. The end result is another feather in the hat. Lawrence Block's Time to Murder and Create is a riveting, emotional reading experience with no clear-cut heroes or villains. It's an unbiased look at human behavior and the ultimate costs of our failure. Masterful.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Matthew Scudder #01 - Sins of the Father

Lawrence Block's most prolific and successful series character is Matthew Scudder. Throughout a 43-year span, the author wrote 17 novels, a short-story collection and a novella about the alcoholic ex-New York City detective. Many fans speculate that the Scudder novels are reflective of Block's own past struggles with alcohol. In Writer's Digest, Block wrote that when he created Scudder, "I let him hang out in the same saloon where I spent a great deal of my own time. I was drinking pretty heavily around that time, and I made him a pretty heavy drinker, too. I drank whiskey, sometimes mixing it with coffee. So did Scudder."

The series debuted in 1976 with the successful novel “The Sins of the Fathers.” In the book's opening pages, we find Scudder as a rather tortured soul bearing life's deep scars and the weight of a burdensome guilt. An alcoholic divorcee, the ex-New York City detective now lives as a recluse in the low-rent section of Hell's Kitchen. Scudder's fall from grace occurred when his bullet, intended for a fleeing criminal, went astray and killed a young girl. After leaving his family and career, Scudder now accepts jobs, and referrals from his former Lieutenant, as an unlicensed private investigator.

In a coffee shop in Midtown, Scudder meets with the father of a recently slain young woman. He asks Scudder to look further into his daughter's murder despite the open and shut appearance of the case. The woman was shredded with a straight razor by her male roommate. After the murder, the man was found wandering the street half-naked, covered in blood and speaking in gibberish about raping and murdering his own mother. After his arrest, the man committed suicide in his cell.

Speculating that there is a clear culprit exposed, Scudder hesitantly accepts the job and promises to do a thorough examination of the evidence and report his findings to the woman's father. Block then pairs the reader with Scudder's investigation, structuring this 180-page novel into a familiar police procedural. We become spectators as witnesses, suspects and motives are inspected. As the plot thickens, the narrative expands into psychological suspense that propels the procedural process into an exciting murder mystery.

“The Sins of the Fathers” represents a transition between the wild 1960s crime noir into the more graphic and intense 1970s crime-fiction market. Lawrence Block captures America's moral erosion, the tearing down of the family structure and the wholesome ideals that came before it. Here, the author profiles the murderer as a homosexual necrophiliac with mother figure fascinations. Perhaps I'm pulling the wrong thread, but Block's deeper analysis of religion, guilt, family relations and youth are abstract, yet on-point for what was ultimately the new normal of the 70s.

With this series debut, Block has created a worthy, yet flawed protagonist who will compel readers to delve more and more into the series. While not a hard-hitting action formula, Scudder's tenacity and grim approach is more than enough to keep readers invested in Block's storytelling. This is a sold first step in what will become one of crime-fiction's most treasured series titles from a master of the genre.

The discussion of the novel was featured on the Paperback Warrior Podcast on July 8th, 2019 (LINK).

Buy a copy of this novel HERE

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

A Time to Scatter Stones

Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder series about an alcoholic ex-NYPD Detective working as an unlicensed private detective started in 1976 and has been a reliably great crime fiction character arc over the past 43 years. Scudder has more-or-less aged in real time over the course of the series which is why I was so intrigued to read Block’s 2019 take on Scudder in the new 160-page novella, “A Time to Scatter Stones.”

As we join our hero narrator, he’s still sober and still married to Elaine at age seventy-something. His bad knees generally don’t stop him from walking around Manhattan, but an ice pack is needed to ease the pain when he gets home. Block does a nice job getting readers up to speed on Scudder and Elaine’s backstories. Elaine is a former prostitute who just started attending her own support-group meetings for women who were in the life - an analogous situation to Scudder’s own AA meetings that he’s been attending for 35 years.

Elaine is sponsoring a young ex-prostitute named Ellen who recently quit escorting. The problem is that she has one client who is not taking no for an answer and insists on seeing for paid sex her despite her demure protestations. She wants Scudder’s help to make the creep lay off and go away. The stakes are increased as his behavior becomes increasingly stalky. 

The first problem is identifying the stalker because it turns out that johns don’t always give their prostitutes their real names. The second problem is that 2019 Scudder is not the same ass-kicker as 1989 Scudder. It’s fun to see a beloved PI who is physically past his prime engaging in old-school gumshoe work, as the story drives toward a satisfyingly violent confrontation and a sexy conclusion. 

I’m pleased to report that even at age 80, Lawrence Block still has his writing chops. His knack for snappy dialogue is better than ever, and his plotting is flawless. Block is a mystery fiction grandmaster and a national treasure. If “A Time to Scatter Stones” turns out to be Scudder’s last appearance, Block can rest easy knowing the journey of this beloved character ended on a high note. Highly recommended.

Purchase this book HERE