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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

Photo by Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

American crime novelist Lawrence Block.

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.”

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.

When Ellery turns up dead — shot in the mouth as well as the forehead — it’s clear that someone didn’t want him talking about the sins of his drunken past. Scudder sets out to retrace his friend’s path to absolution, trying to figure out which of the people from whom he sought forgiveness might have wanted him dead. For Scudder, the case hits uncomfortably close to home. As he closes in on a personal milestone — one full year of sobriety — Ellery’s murder raises anxious doubts as to whether old demons can ever truly be laid to rest.

With its neat distillation of past woes and future challenges, A Drop of the Hard Stuff offers a perfect introduction to P. I. Matt Scudder and his world. Longtime fans will enjoy it all the more; they may even feel a sad tug as once-familiar characters, some of whom have since departed the stage, return for a final bow. Block underscores the elegiac tone with quirky bits of New York history, emphasizing the city’s ever-changing face and its vanishing landmarks. (Some of which are societal: Who knew, for example, that a law still on the city’s books in 1973 prohibited using the word “saloon” in the name of an establishment?)

Scudder, too, appears firmly rooted in a more straightforward time, if not a simpler one. With so many of today’s crime novels weighed down by high-tech rigmarole, it’s refreshing to watch Scudder set to work with nothing more than a pay phone and a pocketful of quarters. Block is careful not to overplay the nostalgia, but when Scudder casually remarks that he spent much of the day staring out his window — “At the Trade Center towers, I suppose” — one feels a wintry chill.

A Drop of the Hard Stuff goes down smooth and has a complex, satisfying finish. It’s been six years since Lawrence Block last gave us a Scudder book; let’s hope we needn’t wait that long for him to pour another round.

Daniel Stashower is a two-time winner of the Edgar award. His most recent book is The Beautiful Cigar Girl.

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