Lawrence Block has held his title as one of mystery’s top heavyweights for longer than many of his readers have been alive. More impressively, he’s managed to stay relevant for all these years – keeping up with the rapidly changing world through the eyes of his characters. The most famous of these is Matthew Scudder, an ex-cop who runs New York’s most casual PI business between the A.A. meetings he religiously attends. A Drop of the Hard Stuff is the 17th installment in the Scudder series.
More than any of the previous entries, the mystery in A Drop of the Hard Stuff is interwoven with the 12-Step program that’s such an intimate part of Scudder’s life. Told in flashback, the story begins when Scudder bumps into a childhood neighbor at an AA meeting. Matt and Jack Avery were casual friends for a brief period during their youths, but as adults they drifted to opposite sides of the law – Scudder joining the police while Avery opted for a life of crime.
Apart from a brief glimpse a rookie cop Scudder got of Avery in a police line-up years back, the two haven’t seen each other in decades. But even though their paths have diverged so widely, they’ve both landed in the same place – the church basements and smoky halls of A.A. where alcoholics confront their inner demons.
While Matt still harbors reservations about the A.A. program, Jack’s on the 9th step, which requires him to make amends to the people he’s harmed. It’s during this process that Jack is brutally murdered. Since the cops won’t spend much time searching for the murderer of a “known criminal,” Jack’s sponsor asks Matt to investigate.
As Scudder carries out his methodical investigation of Jack’s last days, he’s reached crossroads in his relationship with Jan, a fellow recovering alcoholic. At once desirous of her company and annoyed at her familiarity, Scudder has difficulty understanding his own emotions after so many years of shutting them out with booze.
Flannery O’Connor said this about reading Henry James: “I feel something is happening to me, in slow motion but happening nevertheless.” While Block’s novels contain more excitement than your average James, they work the same way – unfolding at a pace so steady it’s hypnotic. You don’t realize you’re being sucked in until – BANG! – the plot thickens and suddenly you can’t put it down. Scudder doesn’t share the flaws or the penchant for violence that define so many fictional detectives. Instead, he’s steady, thoughtful and introspective. Reading about him is akin to putting on an old, comfortable sweater.
And while A Drop of the Hard Stuff isn’t the best Scudder title, it’s a great starting point for readers who have the desire to meet one of American mystery’s most endearing characters but not the time to read all 17 installments. Another solid entry in one of mystery’s most reliable series’.