A Drop of the Hard Stuff
Matthew Scudder is back, which is fabulous news for fans of Lawrence Block. We have not had a Scudder book since ALL THE FLOWERS ARE DYING in 2005. His current work, A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF, is not only a great read but proves precisely why Block is one of the greatest mystery writers of all time and Scudder one of the greatest fictional detectives.
Scudder has aged in real time over the years. So this book finds him spending a late night with his Irish gangster friend Mick Ballou in Ballou's once notorious bar in the now-gentrified section of Manhattan once known as Hell's Kitchen. And as old friends do, they inevitably start talking about the old days and Scudder begins telling a story that happened as he was approaching his first anniversary of sobriety in the early 1980s.
So chronologically this book falls between EIGHT MILLION WAYS TO DIE and OUT ON THE CUTTING EDGE. There was also another Scudder novel, a prequel that came out right after EIGHT MILLION, called WHEN THE SACRED GINMILL CLOSES. That is important to note. In these three volumes, Block provided one of the most harrowing fictional accounts of alcoholism ever written. There had been four small Scudder books to start the series. But in the 1980s, Block assured his place among the greatest American mystery writers as Scudder rose to the status of an immortal fictional character. His greatest accomplishment was to single-handedly bring the mystery novel back to its hard-boiled urban noir roots.
It is not going too far to say that Block, along with his friend, Donald E. Westlake, revitalized noir after the early masters like Hammett, Chandler and MacDonald left the scene. And that had a tremendous impact upon the entire genre of mysteries. For the traditional mystery, at its core, is within a conservative genre: a murder takes place that disrupts the established order, and by solving it, the detective restores the natural order. Not so fast, said 20th-century pulp fiction and paperback masters like Cornell Woolrich and Jim Thompson. Noir is subversive art; the old order is often corrupt and the good guys are sometimes indistinguishable from the bad ones. Noir territory is not just the dark, rain-slick city streets. Noir acknowledges the darkness in the human heart.
Longtime fans of Block might have worried about whether he could pull off a new Scudder story set among the classics of the series, but they will be delighted by A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF. The scene is quickly set. Block writes in Scudder's voice: "Then after too many blackouts and too many hangovers, after a couple of trips to detox and at least one seizure, the day came when I left a drink untouched on top of a bar and found my way to an AA meeting."
Scudder is living in his one furnished room in the Northwestern Hotel just west of Columbus Circle and doing detective jobs off the books. We are reintroduced to characters we have not seen in a long time --- his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Jan Keene, and his AA sponsor, the great Jim Faber. We missed Jim's wry humor and tough love with Scudder as they dine in Chinese restaurants every Sunday night. And we read references to the lost New York, such as Klein's Department Store and Robert Halls, and there is a popular new toy called Rubik's Cube. There are still no cell phones or personal computers, and you often have to walk about five blocks before finding a public pay phone that actually works in the city. New Yorkers of a certain age will remember that well.
Scudder is mostly trying to take it one day at a time. In his back pocket is a book listing of all the AA meetings in Manhattan, and he often goes to several a day. But then a small-time ex-thief named High-Low Jack Ellery, with 16 months more sobriety than Scudder, is brutally murdered with bullets to the mouth and head as he pursues his ninth step of the 12-step program: trying to make amends for people he hurt while drinking. Was he killed by somebody on his list?
The bodies start piling up, and Block takes us into the world of noir. He writes, "Does everything work out the way it is supposed to? I had to think about it, and I kept turning it around in my mind through most of the evening meeting." In noir, few things work out, period.
Soon the case becomes linked to Scudder's struggle to stay sober. Block writes, "I sat at the window, and at one point I realized that I was looking down at the liquor store across the street. It got to be ten o'clock and I stayed where I was, and sometime between ten and ten-thirty they turned off the lights. They would have closed at ten, but if somebody showed up while they were still in the store, somebody they'd known for years, they'd open the door and sell him what he needed."
And the true horror of this tale is that it is not just Scudder's life that is in danger but also his sobriety and his sanity. The Big City takes on a feel of menace and approaching disaster. At one point, a day before his one-year anniversary, he finds himself standing between the great, glorious stone lions of the 42nd Street branch of the Public Library. Block writes: "It was getting dark when I left the library, I'd lost all track of the time, and when I checked my watch I saw that it was past five. It wasn't fully dark, but the sun was down, and a gray day was drawing to a close. Every day the sun disappeared a little earlier than the day before. There was nothing out of the ordinary about that, it happened every year, but there were times when I felt there was a sadness attached to it, that the poor old year was dying one day at a time."
Noir writing does not get better than this. In Matthew Scudder, Block has created a noir character who is constantly battling not only the darkness in the outer world but the darkness inside him that will always threaten to overwhelm him. And in that regard, whether the killer gets caught or not is really not the point. People get away with a lot of things in life, including the self-deception that ultimately brings them down.
Lawrence Block and the Scudder books will be read for as long as mysteries are read because they affirm not only the reality that darkness exists in our world, but the uncomfortable fact that the best we may be able to go about it is to keep it at bay just one day at a time. A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF is one of the best books of 2011. If you are a fan of the series, you will love it. If you are new to Scudder, this is a fine place to start. Then follow it up with the books I mentioned earlier. You are in for a real treat.
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on June 22, 2011