Written by Lawrence Block — If you pick up A Drop of the Hard Stuff and start reading it without knowing the author, you’ll realise pretty quickly that it’s from a seriously accomplished writer. It’s the 17th Matthew ‘Matt’ Scudder novel and it takes place during his first year as an unlicensed PI. Lawrence Block is a confident chap and he takes his time telling you the story; but don’t get me wrong, there are no boring parts here.
We follow the rhythm of Matthew Scudder’s life in New York City and his inner thoughts as he drifts from day to day, moment to moment, fighting to stay sober. His life is not necessarily going in the direction he’d want it to go, if it’s going anywhere at all (much like his love life). You feel the weight of Scudder’s loneliness and his nostalgia for a past with a wife and kids, his work with the NYPD and, yes, also what a good drink or two felt like.
We can just feel Block’s love for New York City when we walk the streets with Scudder, reflecting on people, describing places, such as a bar: “S*loon. There was a law still on the books (…) that made it illegal to call an establishment a saloon… That was why Patrick O’Neal’s joint… was called Baloon… There was, he’d been known to say, nothing illegal about misspelling balloon.” But it’s when Block describes New Yorkers that we feel the city come to life, especially during dialogues such as the following: “Two bullets”, I said. “One in the forehead, the other in the mouth.”
“If that’s suicide,” he said, “it shows remarkably strong will.”
Or, “Somebody killed him? You’re standing there and telling me the son of a bitch is dead?”
“I’m afraid so, and—”
“Afraid? What’s to be afraid? You couldn’t bring me better news. You know what I say? I say thank God the bastard is dead!”
One day, Scudder bumps into Jack Ellery, a childhood friend he hasn’t seen in many years. While Scudder had taken the path of the law, Ellery had gone in the opposite direction: thieving, scamming and even killing. Now, two years into sobriety following the 12-step program of AA, Ellery is trying to make amends with people from his past. He ends up dead because of it.
It’s not a high-priority case for the police, and so Scudder is hired by Ellery’s sponsor to investigate the murder. Scudder starts with a list of people that Ellery wanted to contact and ask forgiveness from. Things get worse when some of these people end up dead after Scudder has talked to them.
Scudder finds a new focus, and maybe a different purpose to his life, doing this detective work. But as he crosses off potential suspects from Ellery’s list, he becomes a target too. Still, he can’t bring himself to stop without knowing who’s behind the murders.
The plot starts out simple enough and, you might think, not very originally: guy (Scudder) meets childhood friend he hasn’t seen in many years and that friend ends up dead, so the guy (Scudder) investigates. That’s when Block brings in the amends process of the AA program and boom, you’ve got a different and original story.
Everything evolves with a certain slow rhythm, as in life not everything happens at break-neck pace, but as Scudder gets nearer the truth, and closer to danger, you find yourself incapable of letting go of the book. The logical resolution is, at first, a bit frustrating (for both Scudder and the reader) but the ending is not. Block has found a brilliant way of tying everything up for a very satisfying conclusion.
Lawrence Block has maintained a regular publication schedule throughout his career while keeping an impressive quality of writing and of storytelling. When you do it for so long it’s practically impossible to get better once you’ve reached a certain point; you just stay at the top of your game or not. Block is not only at the top of the game: he has a well-worn seat there.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars