Reviewed by Douglas R. Cobb
Matthew Scudder is back once again in Lawrence Block’s latest engrossing novel, A Drop of the Hard Stuff. It’s his most personal case ever, as it involves the death of a childhood friend, “High- Low” Jack Ellery. Ellery took a much different route than Scudder took in life, turning to a life of crime rather than becoming a cop, like Scudder. Jack, though, joined AA and at the time of his death, had been trying to make amends for all of the wrongs he’d committed by going to everyone on a list he’d written out to apologize to them and do whatever he could to make up for whatever wrongs he’d done. Scudder is also a member of AA, coming up on his one year anniversary. In the time since they were children, Scudder had only seen Jack a couple of times, once at a police lineup he was viewing. He’d committed the crime, but the witness identified someone else. In Jack, Matt sees the hard-won sobriety he hopes to achieve, and in Mat, Jack sees the moral man he might have become.
Jack’s death is a gruesome one, as he’s been shot once in the mouth and once between the eyes on his forehead. Was someone sending the message that they didn’t want him to talk, or that he’d seen too much, or both? Ellery had been a burglar, and drug addict as well as being addicted to alcohol, and before becoming a member of AA, Scudder had lost touch with Jack. Not that they would have had much to do with each other, anyway, unless their paths had crossed because of Jack getting busted by Matt, but that never happened. Still, Jack had been trying to turn his life around, and to make amends for his past, and when his sponsor Greg Stillman offers Matt $1,000 to discover if anyone on Ellery’s list was the one responsible for killing him, Scudder takes the case.
In A Drop of the Hard Stuff, Matt Scudder faces personal challenges and demons as well as investigating his boyhood friend’s murder. He deals with his own alcoholism, and we get to learn intimate details about his life and what AA’s 12 Step Program is about. His romantic relationship with Jan, who is also a member of AA and who had wanted nothing to do with him while he was still drinking for fear of setting back her own recovery, develops, though it goes through some rough spots. Scudder is a character who is easy to identify with, someone maybe like Sam Spade, if he ever got off of the “hard stuff” also. He’s a man with problems, but he doesn’t let them get in the way of his investigation.