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Onyx reviews: A
Drop of the Hard Stuff by Lawrence Block
When last seen in All the Flowers
are Dying, Matthew Scudder was getting on in years, melancholy and in a kind of voluntary
near-retirement. It seemed like Lawrence Block had said pretty much all he had to say
about his most richly drawn protagonist.
Six years later, Block returns to this fertile ground. However, instead of
challenging his aging hero with a new task, A Drop of the Hard Stuff
turns a nostalgic eye to the days shortly after Scudder got sober. There is no
sense that Block has lost touch with Scudder during this hiatus. He's
immediately recognizable, both in his dialog and in the philosophy behind his
Scudder is spending a late night
with his old friend, former gangster Mick Ballou, reminiscing about bygone days.
Ballou asks whether Scudder ever wonders if he might have gone down a different
path in his life, which inspires Scudder to recount the story of a guy known as “High-Low” Jack Ellery, who came from the
where Scudder grew up. Though their backgrounds were similar, Scudder went into law
enforcement and Ellery became a career criminal. Both men, however, turned into alcoholics.
At the time of the story he recounts, Scudder is closing in on his one-year anniversary, a milestone
that his AA sponsor tells him is fraught with peril. During the first year,
alcoholics are counseled to avoid making drastic changes in their lives. No new
relationships, no severing of old ones. Scudder is slowly working his way
through the twelve step program. His days revolve around
meetings. Most of the people he meets are addicts and recovering alcoholics. Their
conversations are usually about which step they're on and their plans for the next step.
Since he tends to drift from one AA meeting to another, it's almost inevitable that
his path should cross with Ellery's.
He's only seen Ellery once in the past twenty years, and at
that time they were on the opposite sides of a two-way mirror during a police
lineup. Since then, Ellery has gotten his act together and "gone
straight." He started down the road to sobriety while in prison, and is a year
ahead of Scudder. Currently, he's on the ninth step, where he must make amends
with the people he's harmed because of his addiction. For most alcoholics this is
difficult enough, but Ellery has seriously
wronged some people during his checkered past. Many of his victims don't know
who the masked man was who separated them from their belongings while they
stared down the barrel of his gun.
When Ellery is discovered shot
to death shortly after Scudder's chance encounter with him, Ellery's sponsor, Greg Stillman. approaches Scudder for help.
Ellery had compiled a list of people for his ninth step. Stillman is a rigid
adherent to the twelve steps, a so-called "step Nazi," and he's
worried that pushing Ellery into confronting his past got him killed. The names
on the list represent people Ellery has already victimized. Before handing it over to the police, Stillman wants Scudder to clear
the people on it of any possible
involvement in Ellery's murder. He doesn't want innocents victimized a second
time. Not that Scudder expects the cops to expend much effort looking into the
violent death of a known criminal and ex-con.
If the novel were set in the contemporary era, Scudder would have been able
to conduct much of his investigation online. However, this is the early 1980s.
There is no internet or cell phones, so Scudder has to do it the
old-fashioned way: pounding the pavement, calling sources on land lines, missing
phone calls, hitting the library. Though none of the people on Ellery's list
seem to be involved in his murder, someone doesn't want Scudder to continue his
investigation, so more bodies turn up.
Though this is a murder mystery, and there are ample clues to be follow
before Scudder uncovers the identity and motives of the killer, A Drop of the
Hard Stuff is primarily about atoning for the past and making a new future
through sobriety. The novel is steeped in the lore of the twelve step program
and does an excellent job of showing how recovering alcoholics think about
alcohol all the time. One of the most effective weapons someone can use against
Scudder is the temptation to drink again.
This is a somber, sober novel, told from the perspective of a man who has
seen it all. The former cop who left the department after a stray bullet from
his gun killed an innocent bystander. The jaded detective who has had
relationships come and go, and who has seen many of his friends laid low by
violence, often because they were his friends. If this is the final Scudder
novel (and one hopes not), it is a perfect swan song because it encapsulates
everything that makes these books spectacular: a terrific sense of place,
characters who ring true because they are so deeply flawed and human, a mournful
protagonist who is nothing like a superhero or a mastermind, and a subject that
has been too frequently ignored by writers who typecast their characters as
drunks without pausing to examine what that really means. The ending isn't neat
or tidy, because real life is so often neither.
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