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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 world view.

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 Bronx neighborhood 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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