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A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF by Lawrence Block: Book Review

In 1994 Lawrence Block was named a Grand Master, the highest award given by the Mystery Writers of America. Agatha Christie was the first recipient, and others include John D. MacDonald, John LeCarre, Sue Grafton, Graham Greene, and this year’s recipient, Sara Paretsky.  Pretty good company to be keeping.

Block’s latest book is A Drop of the Hard Stuff, the seventeenth in the Scudder series.  It takes the reader back to the first year of Matt Scudder’s hard-won sobriety.

Scudder was a New York City policeman until a bullet he shot while chasing a suspect ricocheted off a wall and killed a little girl. Shortly after that, Scudder left his wife, two sons, and the police department.  He moved into a single room in a Manhattan hotel and tried to drink himself to death.

The first few books in the series take place during the time Scudder is drinking heavily and experiencing blackouts.  Eventually, after a number of tries, he pulls himself together and joins Alcoholics Anonymous and lives “one day at a time,” as they say in A.A.  At this point in time he has been sober for years.  A Drop of the Hard Stuff begins when Scudder and his friend Mick Ballou are talking over old times.

Scudder tells the story of his meeting up with a boyhood chum from The Bronx, Jack Ellery.  As Scudder sort of drifted into becoming a policeman, Ellery sort of drifted into becoming a criminal.  Ellery had been drinking for many years, and as he told Scudder, he never got into trouble when he was sober, only when he was drunk.  He’d been imprisoned several times but never did major time.

Now Ellery is out of jail, and he’s achieving sobriety through A.A.  One of the steps in the program is making amends, going to the people you hurt or injured when you were an alcoholic and asking them how you can make it right. Ellery is jumping ahead to the Eighth Step before he’s done all the previous steps, trying to make amends, and he has a list of all the people he’s wronged.  But the responses from those people aren’t what he’d hoped, and one of them wants him dead.

Block is an incredible writer.  I was caught from page one.  He has a way with dialogue that makes the reader think she’s/he’s part of the conversation in the book.  And some of his sentences simply jump out of the page at you.  Scudder, in remembering a new suit he’d bought years ago when he was still married:  “I’d bought the suit to impress…my wife had admired that suit, and so had my girlfriend.”

The Matt Scudder series needs to be begun, if not from the first novel, at least as close to the beginning as possible.  Otherwise the struggles Scudder has with alcohol can’t come across in a meaningful way, and his victory over drink won’t be as important to you as it should be.  You’ll find yourself rooting for him to overcome his dependence on alcohol, angry when he slips, and cheering him on when he succeeds.  But you know that every day is a struggle for him, and seeing it from the beginning heightens its impact.

Lawrence Block has written several other series as well as stand-alone novels, books for writers, and a memoir.  He’s a truly gifted author in every genre, but I like his Matthew Scudder books the best.

You can read more about Lawrence Block at his web site.

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