Saturday, May 28, 2011

A Master in His Latter Years

After a long six years, Lawrence Block finally delivers A Drop of the Hard Stuff, the seventeenth book featuring New York P.I., Matthew Scudder. Beginning with The Sins of the Fathers in 1976, Block has parceled the Scudder books out over a period of thirty-five years, much to the frustration of fans who can't get enough of them. But each book has been worth the wait, and this one is no exception.

By now, Matthew Scudder would be in his middle seventies, and so Block cleverly sets this book back in the early 1980s, when Scudder is still in his middle forties and at a critical point in his life. As virtually every fan of crime fiction knows, in the early books in the series, Scudder, a divorced ex-cop, had a serious problem with alcohol. In the nick of time, he found AA and saved himself, and in A Drop of the Hard Stuff, Block returns to the first year of Matt's sobriety, when he's still struggling with temptation and adjusting to a new way of life that involves attending an awful lot of AA meetings.

At one such meeting, Scudder re-connects with Jack Ellery. The two knew each other briefly as boys, but haven't seen each other in years. Ellery has followed an even tougher road than Scudder. While young Matt grew up to be a cop, young Jack grew up to become a criminal and has spent time in jail as a result.

Ellery is now clean and sober as well and is working his way through AA's famous Twelve Steps. Matt is just beginning this journey and is in no particular hurry. Jack has reached the latter stages of the process and is at the point where he has made a list of the people whom he has harmed and is attempting to apologize and make amends. When Ellery is found murdered, with a bullet in his mouth, his friends in AA leap to the logical conclusion that someone that Jack harmed was not content simply to accept an apology. Either that, or someone feared the consequences of Jack's apologies and wanted to silence him.

Ellery's AA sponsor hires Matt to look into the murder which sets Matt on a course that will lead to even more violence and place Matt himself at great personal risk.

As always, the real treat in these books is watching Scudder at work, especially since this book takes place before personal computers were commonplace, long before Al Gore invented the Internet, and when the only person who had something approaching a cell phone was still Dick Tracy. It's also fun to meet again some of the characters that Block had introduced early in the series and who had then disappeared from the books for one reason or another. And, as always, the setting in New York City is a major part of the book, and Block is clearly nostalgic for a time and a place that has long since disappeared.

Any long-time fan is also going to read this book with a fair sense of nostalgia. You can't help but wonder if this might finally be the last book in a truly great series. One desperately hopes that this will not be the case, but if it is, then this is certainly a good book for Block--and Scudder--to go out on. But in truth, the same could be said for any of the recent entries in this series, and one can't help but point out that A Drop of the Hard Stuff proves that Block certainly has the chops to keep writing it. The book is as engaging and as entertaining as virtually any of the other Scudder books and one can only hope that we will not have to wait another six years to see Matthew Scudder again.

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