A Drop of the Hard Stuff by Lawrence Block (Review #2)


A Drop of the Hard Stuff 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. It’s difficult to track down everyone on Jack’s list, but Matt eventually does. Everyone he contacts has reason enough to have wanted to kill Ellery–one is even the person who beats him up, breaking his nose and two of his ribs–but, none of them seems to Matt to be the person who went to Jack’s apartment and murdered him. Before he locates the people on the list, he’s fairly sure that whomever beat Ellery up had to be the one responsible for shooting him, but after meeting the man and talking to him, Matt is convinced he didn’t kill Jack.

So who did murder “High-Low” Jack? And, how did he earn that nickname? Though Stillman mainly was just paying Matt to see if anyone on Jack’s list of people to make amends to had committed the murder, and though Scudder had said to some else in the novel that he would feel as if he’d done enough to earn the $1,000 if he either cleared everyone on the list or found out that one of the people had murdered Ellery, Matt never likes to leave a case unsolved. Did he overlook something that would link someone on the list to the murder? Were his instincts fooled? Or, was it someone else, not on the list, who murdered Jack Ellery?

There is a quote that crops up here and there in A Drop of the Hard Stuff that I really like, attributed to the Buddha: “It is your dissatisfaction with what is that is the source of all your unhappiness.” This can be interpreted in many ways, but there is definitely validity to the saying. Matt was dissatisfied with how his life was going, so he joined the AA and is trying to stay sober. Jack was dissatified with his life, so he also joined the AA and was trying to make amends. Still, Jack was murdered despite his efforts, and I’m sure that trying to make amends brought more grief and unhappiness to his life, though he also attained some inner degree of satisfaction that at least he was trying to change himself and making amends. And Matt earns every dime of the $1,000 he is paid, but that and the knowledge he gains doesn’t make him any happier as a person, in the long run.

A Drop of the Hard Stuff by Lawrence Block is the Grand Master at his best, and it’s a joy to read! I saw him plugging the book on “The Late, Late Show” with Craig Ferguson not long ago, in a somewhat unconventional but cool interview, and that made me want to check out his novel even more than I had wanted to before. The dedication of the novel is: “This is for MEGAN and CRAIG,” and Megan is the name of Craig Ferguson’s wife. Whether Ferguson was joking or not, he said that the book was dedicated to himself and his wife, and Block didn’t say otherwise. You don’t have to be familiar with the previous Matt Scudder novels to really get into and appreciate this one, which is another good thing about the book, though Block is such a great author, you should check those out, as well. If you love reading excellent mysteries/thrillers, I highly recommend you add A Drop of the Hard Stuff to your personal libraries!

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