Let’s be clear up front: If you’ve never read a single word that Lawrence Block ever wrote, you will still love his new Matthew Scudder, A Drop of the Hard Stuff. Scudder is an engaging voice. He’s tough – been around the block a time or two or ten. Manly – a go-to guy for any friend (and lots of strangers) with a problem, and for certain women who are looking for a capable and friendly roll in the sheets. And he’s damaged – an alcoholic who struggles, with an ex-wife, kids he doesn’t see much, and bad memories. But he’s a good man and with each book, the reader can see how he grows and matures. So if you haven’t read Lawrence Block yet – or if you have only dipped into his funny Bernie Rhodenbarr series – go ahead, start with this one.
Still… I’m a giant Lawrence Block fan. I’ve read all the Matthew Scudder novels, most several times. And so I opened A Drop of the Hard Stuff with all the backstory, all the characters who have woven through Scudder’s fictional – but still very real for the reader – life. Elaine. Mick Ballou. TJ. Danny Boyle Bell. Cop Joe Durkin. Matt’s sponsor, Jim Farber.
And for people like me, wow. There’s no disappointment – we’re in excellent hands. Some of my favorite characters aren’t in this book, because Block has chosen to loop back to the past – a past before smart phones, before Google, when a man trying to maintain his sobriety carries quarters for the pay phone and subway tokens so he can always get to a meeting. And some characters are – it brought a lump to my throat to see Jim Farber again.
The author uses a framing device – the hoary “let me tell you a story, my friend” convention. In this case, it’s Scudder doing the telling and his old friend, Mick Ballou, listening, after hours in the bar where a harsher Ballou put on his father’s blood-stained apron to go to the butcher’s mass. And then we’re back in the past, when Scudder encounters former childhood friend, criminal-gone-good and recovering alcoholic Jack Ellery. He’s about a year further down the road than Matt, and working the 12 steps of AA religiously with his sponsor. He’s to the step where he’s made the list of all those he’s wronged… and now it’s time to make amends. And make them he does. Until someone kills him.
It’s up to Matt to unravel the mystery, even as his love life unravels and he faces an uncertain future… for how certain can the future be, if you are only planning one day at a time?
Always masterful, Block gives you plenty of entertainment as the plot unfurls and waves the bad guy under your nose in a way that makes you later slap your forehead and say, “Oh geez, of course!” One thing I like about Scudder as a character is that he’s smart, but not super-human, and bad things happen to people he cares about and he figures it out eventually, but not usually in a “Superman-saves-the-day” kind of way.
A Drop of the Hard Stuff doesn’t disappoint. While Matt solves the crime, the bad guy seems to get away scot free. But as the closing conversation between Matt and Mick demonstrates, some things change. And others endure.