A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF by Lawrence Block
Matthew Scudder, the legendary recovering alcoholic invented by Lawrence Block, is back in the seventeenth book of the series. A Drop of the Hard Stuff is a step back in Scudder’s life, though, and revisits earlier storylines in the series. The story, as told in the book, is related to a friend over a cup of coffee in a restaurant.
I was delighted by the prospect of returning to those early years because I’d picked up those first Scudder books twenty-five years ago and enjoyed them a lot. In those days, Scudder was an unlicensed private eye doing “favors” for people. Since then, he’s become a legitimate private investigator. I’ve followed the series over the years, and I’ve enjoyed the way Scudder has grown and the way his life has turned out for the most part.
But this view of Scudder, still in his first year of sobriety – almost, shows how vulnerable he was and makes the character even more endearing. I also enjoyed the way that Block winds the Twelve Step Program throughout the plot of the novel. In fact, it’s one of the steps that ends up getting High-Low Jack Ellery killed.
Ellery is from a time even further back in Scudder’s past, from his boyhood days. As the two of them grew up, they chose different paths. Scudder became a cop and Ellery became a thief. But, like Scudder, Ellery has realized he’s an alcoholic. In fact, Ellery has put together two years of sobriety to Scudder’s single year (impending throughout the novel), and becomes a cornerstone of Scudder’s belief that he, too, can make that commitment.
Then Ellery turns up dead, killed by someone with secrets to protect. Ellery has begun his Eighth Step, going to people he has wronged in the past and apologizing. The Ninth Step is dedicated to making amends for those wrongs. Someone silenced Ellery with two bullets to the head to get him to stop his semi-confessions.
Although the mystery is the obvious focus of the novel, Block shakes out the plot lines. I was drawn into Scudder’s personal struggles as he tries to figure out his relationship with Jan (who had figured in prominently in the early novels) and his conversations with Jim Faber, his sponsor in Alcoholics Anonymous.
Block also knows New York intimately. His descriptions of the neighborhoods and how things work on the police force are amazing and interesting. I didn’t know until this book that it’s a requirement for all buildings seven stories tall and taller to have an elevator, and that’s why so many apartment buildings are only six stories tall.
I don’t know how Block feels about continued Scudder’s adventures in the present because the character’s life is now fairly settled. However, I would love to see another of these dark walks down memory lane.