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A Drop of the Hard Stuff
Matthew Scudder Series, No 17
Lawrence Block

Mulholland Books
2011/ ISBN 9780316127332
Mystery / NYC-Cont

Reviewed by L J Roberts

First Sentence: “I’ve often wondered,” Mick Ballou said, “how it would have all gone if I’d taken a different turn.”

A present-day Matt Scudder reminisces with his friend, Mick Ballou about a case in his early days of sobriety, particularly an incident when he was approaching his one-year mark in AA (Alcoholics Anonymous). Jack Ellery, now at sixteen months sober, was trying to follow each of the twelve steps; including making reparation to others for the harm he had done them. When Jack is murdered, his AA sponsor asks Matt to find out what happened. Doing so nearly costs Matt his sobriety and his life.

The book opens with a thought we have all considered of “what if?”.

I have missed Scudder. Block has a wonderful use of language, a great voice and does dialogue so well. It is very natural with excellent flow with just the right touch of humor. In talking to a cop about the investigation into Jack’s murder…”…it is on my plate, and my mother raised me to finish every….But on the dinner plate of crime, my friend, Jack Ellery is the Brussels sprouts.” There is a delightful exchange involving the confusion over Buddha, the bouncer at a rough bar, and the Buddha sitting under the bodhi tree. His writing includes wonderful quotes, literary references and small truths that sound cliché because they are true, but they make you think.

Block’s sense of place and time add to the depth of the story. You needn’t have spent time hanging out in after-hours bars as Block takes you there and draws a chair up to the table for you. His knowledge and love of New York City are apparent in every page, but he is as aware of its dark side and flaws as its attractions. The main part of the story is set in a time before cell phone and technology, when investigation was still done with quarter phone calls, the public library, taking the subway and shoe leather to ask questions. It was a time with HIV/AIDS was just taking hold, but there was not a name for it yet, other than Kaposi’s sarcoma. Yet there is a nod to today in the transition back to present time.

Even if one has not read previous Scudder books, the backstory is included in a way to prevent new readers from feeling lost, but doesn’t slow down the story at all. Also, one could be concerned that the information on AA could be preachy or depressing, but it’s not. Instead, instead, it is a facet of understanding the characters.

This is vintage Larry Block and it’s great. All the elements I particularly love about his writing, and particularly the character of Matt Scudder, are all here. If one hasn’t read the series before, I always recommend starting at the beginning, but it’s also nice that this book stands very well on its own.

Reviewer's Note:
Reviewed 2011
© 2011