Review: A Drop of the Hard Stuff by Lawrence Block

9781409135166The master of the hard-boiled detective story delivers a noir masterpiece with A Drop of the Hard Stuff, a tale about good intentions that backfire, spectacularly and fatally, for all involved. Lawrence Block doesn’t waste time with pleasantries and sub-plots and red-herrings that convolute the tales spun by his contemporaries; A Drop of the Hard Stuff is a pared-down, hard-edged investigation into the death of a man trying to make amends, infused with just enough compassion to make it resonate.

A Drop of the Hard Stuff is a prequel to the preceding Matthew Scudder novels, which is framed around the protagonist reflecting on his first year off the bottle, and his inquiries into the death of a guy he went to school with Jack Ellery, who Scudder’s had previous interactions with through a one-way mirror at a police precinct while he was still wearing the badge, then again years later at an AA meeting. Scudder and Ellery chose very different paths, but their addiction unites them, and they get talking, Ellery mentioning his “Step Nazi” sponsor Gregory Stillman, who is a true believer in the 12 steps in the AA program, and is adamant that each be completed.

Unfortunately for Ellery, his dedication to the fulfilment of Step 8 gets him killed. Having scrawled a list of the people he’s wronged, Jack begins the difficult process of apologising to each of them. Trouble is, his criminal background means saying sorry to bunch of nefarious characters; one of whom puts a bullet in Ellery’s mouth and forehead. With the NYPD unconcerned by the death of a former criminal — even one trying to make amends — Jack’s sponsor, Stillman, hires Scudder to look into the people on Jack’s list.

Block paints a sympathetic picture of Jack Ellery, a man who has done bad things, owned up to them, and is now determined to rectify his mistakes. A Drop of the Hard Stuff makes you wonder: is reconciliation possible? When you’ve broken bad, is atonement feasible? Scudder’s investigation is fairly conventional, but it’s augmented by particular moments that force Scudder to confront his own demons, and his attachment to the sauce.

There hasn’t been a Scudder novel since A Drop of the Hard Stuff, and if this is a master’s valedictory swansong, it’s a fitting finale, and an absolute pleasure to read.

ISBN: 9781409135166
Format: Paperback (133mm x 201mm x 23mm)
Pages: 336
Imprint: Orion (an Imprint of The Orion Publishing Group Ltd )
Publisher: Orion Publishing Co
Publish Date: 1-Sep-2012
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

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