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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A Drop of the Hard Stuff, by Lawrence Block ($14.99) (2011)

This great book has been out for two years, and I don't know why it took me so long to get to it. This is a return to Matt Scudder's past, 25 years ago, almost a year after he has given up booze and joined AA. It's storytelling in a lean, mean way. No frills, spies, global virus, fiscal cliffs, Vatican rags, or conspiracies. "Just" Lawrence Block spinning a well-constructed tale of human frailties.

Matt Scudder has been entertaining readers since 1975 as an unlicensed private eye in Manhattan. Block has chronicled Scudder's destructive relationship with alcohol and then his redemption through Alcoholics Anonymous. It's the best advertising AA could have in many ways. A Drop of the Hard Stuff, especially, takes a clear-eyed look at what it takes for an alcoholic to remain sober.

Block's story is straightforward and smoothly told. He makes that look easy, even though we know it's one of the hardest writing skills to learn. What also lifts his writing to the next level is his lack of extraneous detail. At the same time, he salts his narrative with interesting asides. Not extraneous details, just extra details. That's a big difference.

Block paints a picture of a character with only a few physical details. What he adds are the details of their experience at living. Scudder has a humorous exchange with another character about the difference in meaning between sobriquet and nickname. It doesn't add to your understanding of the crime in the book, but it does add to your understanding of the two characters exchanging the remarks. Yes, Danny Boy Bell is a "diminutive albino Negro," but what makes him stick in your mind is that he uses the word sobriquet, the first time, Scudder says, that he's ever heard that word said out loud. The pleasure of meeting a character that well-developed in just a paragraph or two is of rare value.

Look for an almost throw-away exchange about why a character has had her hair cut. Look for the moose or elk or whatever it is hanging from a barroom wall. Look for "bare ruined choirs," a nice counterpoint to the finale. This is what places Block on the other side of the line, in that small place with few occupants reserved for writers with their own inimitable style.

This is the simple story of A Drop of the Hard Stuff. Scudder has met many people in the year he has been going to AA meetings. One of them, Jack, a man Scudder knew when they were children but with whom he is not close, is trying to live the Eighth Step. Jack is trying to make amends to people he has wronged. When he is murdered, his sponsor enlists Scudder's help to see if one of the people on Jack's list could have been the murderer. That's it. It's that simple. It's complicated only by the complexities of human nature and the ability of one person to go beyond society's mutually agreed upon restrictions.

It must have been difficult to write a story set so long in the past. It was a different world and how does one avoid anachronisms? Block makes reference to the Twin Towers. He has other references that anchor us in that time: pay phones, subway tokens, long-gone restaurants, and tough neighborhoods now upscaled into gentility. Makes you want to sigh for a time gone by, until you consider, forensically speaking, how much easier it must have been for a murderer to cover his tracks.

The last chapter, set in the present, brings us poignantly up-to-date with all the characters in the story.  Scudder, we know, survived sobriety and adversity. If this is in fact the end of Scudder's saga, A Drop of the Hard Stuff is a mighty fine coda to a magnificent opus.

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