A Drop of the Hard Stuff, by Lawrence Block – a book review

 

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I knew Lawrence Block as a writer’s writer before I read any of his fiction. He wrote a column on writing for the magazine Writer’s Digest for 14 years. As an aspiring writer, I read the magazine, and the column. Eventually, I began to read Block’s fiction.

I can’t swear to it, but I think the first Block novel that I read was the Matthew Scudder novel Eight Million Ways to Die. Afterward, I was hooked. I went back and read the four Scudder novels which preceded this one (three of which were published in 1976), and then I read every one that came after, up to and including 2011’s A Drop of the Hard Stuff. There has been a collection of Scudder short stories and novelettes published since that I haven’t read yet, but, along the way, I also discovered other Block creations, such as Bernie Rhodenbarr, Evan Tanner, Chip Harrison, and Keller the Hit Man. Suffice it to say, I am a Lawrence Block fan, and Matt Scudder was the Block creation who first drew me into Block’s fictional oeuvre.

Block turns 80 years old in about a month as I write this. As much as I would love for him to continue writing on forever, both he and I know that life is too short to waste much time matching socks. I’m not sure how many more Scudder books Block has in him, but I know that I will read them if I have enough time left myself. I won’t waste too much of it matching socks, I assure you.

A little about Matt Scudder.

Scudder debuted in ’76’s The Sins of the Father as an alcoholic ex-cop who takes jobs as an unlicensed private eye. A pivotal event in Scudder’s life, which led to his leaving the NYC police force and his wife and sons, was the accidental shooting death of a young girl while on the job. This is brought up in some form in every Scudder novel, and we realize that the tragic event is never far from his mind, even though the NYPD cleared Scudder of any wrongdoing. While Scudder drank alcohol before the shooting, it becomes his main hobby afterwards. At the end of Eight Million Ways to Die, Scudder introduces himself at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. While Scudder never drinks again, AA figures heavily in all of the novels that follow, including the one I just finished reading, a flashback novel set around the end of Matt’s first year of sobriety.

In A Drop of the Hard Stuff, someone Matt knew from grammar school days, whose life took a different path than Matt’s own, winds up dead after reconnecting with Matt. Like Matt, the friend is recently sober, attending AA meetings, and working his way through the Eighth Step, when an alcoholic attempts to make amends to the people he’s wronged during his life. The friend’s sponsor seems to think that someone on the victim’s Eighth Step list is responsible for killing the man known as High-Low Jack, and he hires Matt to investigate this. The investigation results in more discoveries about Jack’s criminal past and in further deaths. Block plays fair with the clues and the conclusion is a realistic one, if not ultimately satisfying. That’s all I’ll say without spoiling the ending for anyone.

The actual solution to the mystery is always secondary for me when I’m reading a Lawrence Block novel. I probably can’t tell you exactly how many of his books end. What I can tell you is that I enjoyed the process of reading them, and that I always feel a little sad when I reach the end, regardless of the ending.

That holds true for this novel as well. It’s a great read, with believable dialogue and moments that are laugh-out-loud funny. Block is a lifelong New Yorker, and his affection for the city shines through in his prose. Block retains his spot on my list of favorite authors, along with Elmore Leonard, Donald E. Westlake (Richard Stark), John D. MacDonald, and many others.

Here’s an early Happy Birthday to you, Mr. Block.

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