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Review: A Drop of the Hard Stuff

Lawrence Block returns — to the past — with his new Matt Scudder novel

American crime novelist Lawrence Block in 2009

American crime novelist Lawrence Block. — Photo by Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

It’s been a long time since we’ve had to worry about Matt Scudder falling off the wagon.

Beginning with The Sins of the Fathers in 1976, Scudder has appeared in 17 novels by Lawrence Block, a figure of legend in American crime fiction. Scudder, perhaps the best known of Block’s many fictional creations, is an ex–New York City cop turned unlicensed private investigator, struggling to pull his life together after years of hard drinking. Each book in the long-running series is a first-rate crime thriller. Taken together, they present an unflinching portrait of an alcoholic’s journey to recovery, beginning in the early novels with a wrenching account of the downward spiral that cost Scudder his job and his family. “Then,” as Scudder himself relates, “after too many blackouts and too many hangovers, after a couple of trips to detox and at least one seizure, the day came when I left a drink untouched on top of a bar and found my way to an AA meeting.”

A Drop of the Hard Stuff, Block’s gripping and often poignant new novel, opens on a familiar scene. Scudder is sitting up late one night at Grogan’s Open House, a haunt from his drinking days, sipping club soda as he swaps stories with his closest friend, reformed criminal Mick Ballou. Both men appear unusually reflective. “I’ve often wondered,” says Ballou, “how it would all have gone if I’d taken a different turn.” Block’s longtime readers may recall that Ballou was once rumored to carry a severed head around town in a bowling bag as a warning to those who might cross him. Even so, Ballou admits, there were fleeting moments when he wondered if he, like Scudder, could have made it as a cop. “And how about yourself?” he asks his friend. “Could you have gone the other way?”

The question prompts Scudder to recall a long-buried episode from the first year of his sobriety, and in the process Block brings his series circling back to its stormy beginnings. It’s a jolt to be reminded of how adrift Scudder was in those days: living in a hotel in Hell’s Kitchen, taking whatever work came his way, making the rounds of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. “There’s no charge for the seats in an AA room,” he says ruefully. “You pay for them in advance.”

A Drop of the Hard Stuff by Lawrence Block

At a “three-speaker meeting” on East 19th Street, Scudder runs into boyhood acquaintance Jack “High-Low” Ellery, who is trying to straighten out after his own drinking pulled him into a life of crime. Scudder sees Ellery as a cautionary tale, a reflection of himself as he might have been. “Boys together,” an old friend remarks. “One turns bad, the other goes on the cops.” Indeed, Scudder’s previous glimpse of Ellery had been through one-way glass at a police line-up.  Under the chastening influence of A.A.’s Twelve Steps, Ellery is trying to make amends to those he wronged during his drinking days.

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