A Drop of the Hard Stuff written by Lawrence Block (2011): It’s been 35 years (!) since Block’s hardboiled Manhattan-based detective Matt Scudder came on the scene. Scudder’s adventures have been one of the high points of detective fiction over those years, taking him through near-fatal drinking bouts to hard-won and hard-maintained sobriety, all while solving cases the police have given up on.
Herein, Block returns to a format he first used with Scudder in When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, with the present Scudder narrating a much earlier case. We go to Scudder’s first year of sobriety in the early 1980’s, just after the events of Eight Million Ways to Die. Sympathetic Irish gangster Mick Ballou cameos as the person to whom Scudder tells the story.
An acquaintance from Scudder’s childhood comes back into his life, a small-time hood who’s gone sober and now, per the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, is in the ‘Amends’ phase of his eternal recovery. But someone kills him. His guilt-stricken sponsor, who’d pushed him to work fairly quickly through the 12 Steps, hires Scudder to find out who and why. And off we go.
Block does a lovely job of fleshing out Scudder’s early-recovery self throughout the narrative. We also get an in-depth look at the workings of Alcoholics Anonymous and those who’ve sought it out to save themselves. Booze is as much a nemesis as the hidden murderer for Scudder, and the two dovetail neatly in a climactic sequence.
The ending may not satisfy everybody — there is closure, but not of the bow-wrapped, justice-always-prevails variety. It satisfied me, but, then, I’m always glad to reacquaint myself with Scudder, and after the super-smart serial killer adversary of a couple of the most recent Scudder novels, I liked seeing things return to a more normative scale. Highly recommended, though it you’ve never read a Matt Scudder mystery before you should probably start at the beginning with A Stab in the Dark and work your way forward.