A Drop of the Hard Stuff, by Lawrence Block. Mullholland Books, May 12, 2011. 978-0-316-12733-2. $25.99. 263pp.
The last Matthew Scudder novel I read was A Long Line of Dead Men in 1994. The then-husband was a hard-boiled fan, and had just recently entered the Program, so the Scudder series was a natural fit. Then that marriage fell apart, the latest Scudder stopped showing up automatically in my environs, and entropy reigned; however, A Drop of the Hard Stuff reminds me why I so thoroughly enjoyed these novels.
This is a flashback story, recounted by Scudder to his friend Mick Ballou during one of their increasingly-rare late-nights. At the time of the action, Scudder has only been in the Program for a few months. Right at his 90 Days, he encounters Jack Ellery, a childhood acquaintance with whom he had lost touch; Scudder, of course, grew up to join the police, while Ellery’s life was one of small-time villainy punctuated with the occasional murder. While incarcerated, Ellery went to a Meeting, and because he worked, the Program worked for him. The second time Scudder sees him, Ellery is reporting his Two-Year anniversary, but it is obvious that someone, not long before, has beat the hell out him. “The next time I saw [Ellery], he was dead.” Scudder is contacted by Greg Stillman, a self-proclaimed “Step Nazi” who had been Ellery’s sponsor; the murdered man had been working on his 9th Step, making amends directly to the people he had injured by his drinking. Both Stillman, who feels responsible, and Scudder think it likely that Ellery’s attempt to make amends to one person got him murdered. Stillman hires Scudder to look into the only 5 names on Ellery’s 8th Step list that were potential murderers. The action of the novel carries Scudder through to his 1-Year Anniversary.
The utter brilliance of the Scudder mysteries, and A Drop of the Hard Stuff is no exception, is that they can be read ”simply” as expertly-crafted, tightly-plotted murder mysteries by an acknowledged master of the genre; or, just as easily, they can be read as the daily (if not hourly) and often-desperate struggles of an alcoholic to keep sober. The reader attends almost-daily Meetings with Scudder, works to understand and integrate the Steps into one’s life, experiences in an undeniable way the power of alcohol over the addict and the steps needed to stay away from it. Short of being a sober, AA-attending alcoholic oneself, I can’t think of any way to get a more intimate view of the Program than this.
I had forgotten how fine the Matthew Scudder books are; A Long Line of Dead Men has reminded me, and I look forward to filling in my missing entries in the weeks to come.