A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF by Lawrence Block

Book Quote:

I’ve often wondered,” Mick Ballou said, ” how it would all have gone if I’d taken a different turn.

Book Review:

Review by Hagen Baye  (MAY 12, 2011)

A Drop of the Hard Stuff is the 17th and very likely final installment of Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder series of crime fiction novels. In fact, Block had not even envisioned writing another Scudder book. He figured that as Scudder was already in his mid-sixties, semi-retired and collecting social security in All the Flowers are Dying, the immediately previous book six years ago, by now Scudder is in his 70’s and settled into a “comfortable retirement” and no longer up to the rigors of private investigating. In Hard Stuff Block finesses this by having Scudder relate events from the past. (All of the previous books, except one, followed in chronological order and if there were, for example, two years between consecutive books, Scudder was two years older in the latter book. The only exception to this was the sixth book in the series, When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, published after Eight Million Ways to Die; Ginmill is a prequel and can be said to be the savior of the Scudder series, for reasons stated in the post-script to MostlyFiction’s review of All the Flowers are Dying.)

So, A Drop of the Hard Stuff is noteworthy in part for the fortuitous fact that it may not have ever seen the light of day. But, further, one of the significant attributes of Block’s writing is the number of diverse series characters he has created over his writing career of 50-plus years. As already noted, the Scudder series, about a guilt ridden, ex-cop and eventually ex-drunk, has spanned 17 books since the first one, The Sins of the Father, in 1976. Block’s series about the affable burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr consist of ten books; the series about the spy who can not sleep who embraces screwy causes across the world, Evan Tanner, spans eight books; Block wrote four books about the pubescent private-eye in training, Chip Harrison; and four more about the brooding hitman, Keller. Hence, Block has authored some 43 books spread over five characters as different as different can be.

Without diminishing the quality of any of Block’s other series characters, Scudder is the most real of those characters and, likely for this reason, the Scudder series is the most celebrated by critics and reviewers. Each of the other characters has elements of unreality. Scudder is the most human, flesh and blood character. He is certainly flawed, besides due to his drinking. As a cop he learned and adhered to the “important precept” that if someone hands you money, put it in your pocket. He had a number of inappropriate affairs, even after he took up with his second wife Elaine. As a cop, he even falsified evidence if necessary to put a bad guy away (see A Ticket to the Boneyard). The hitman Keller has elements of unreality and is hard to relate to. The other characters have comic and cartoon-like qualities. In fact, when asked if he ever considered doing a book that included both Scudder and Bernie Rhodenbarr, Block said that would be impossible as “they both occupy different universes.” The same could be said about Scudder and the other series characters as well.

Scudder is existential man. When the series starts, he gives up wife, children and home, job, his possessions, strips himself down to just about nothing, other than the booze to ward off the demons confronting him, the occasional AA meeting, and the lost cause cases that come his way that pay his rent, keep him from starving and drunk —and then he rebuilds himself and his life step by step during the course of the series. Scudder truly stands out among the series characters who have populated crime fiction.

Another aspect of Scudder worthy of note is the parallels between Scudder and Block. Like Scudder, Block had a serious drinking problem that he overcame right around the time he started the Scudder series. Also, in the preface to Telling Lies for Fun & Profit, one his books for writers, Block relates how very similar to Scudder:

“In the summer of ’75 I hit the road. I gave up my New York apartment, sold or gave away most of the possessions of a lifetime, packed the remainder into the back of a diseased station wagon, and set out for Los Angeles.”

In his memoir, Step by Step, his most recently published book prior to Hard Stuff, Block relates that at the time his first marriage ended (in the mid-70’s), he would go to a nearby church for “peace and quite” and that this was the source for Scudder’s habit for visiting churches. Finally, Block assigned an age to Scudder that is similar to his own.

Does this mean that Scudder is Block’s alter ego? As fascinating a concept as that can be, one should be cautioned from reaching such conclusion on such sketchy evidence. It is entirely possible that these particular parallels were simply the source of inspiration for certain aspects of the Scudder character and that Block’s imagination took off from there. Also, keep in mind that Block authored over 100 books—there’s the 43 books devoted to his five series characters, then about 40 free standing novels (19 acknowledged in the “Also by Lawrence Block” page of Hard Stuff, and over 20 more early novels that Block wrote under assumed names (such as Jill Emerson and Sheldon Lord) that Block is only now bringing to light), and then there are four books for writers, seven collections of short stories and so on—the point being that to be as prolific (indeed, as prodigious) as Block, one must possess a uniquely fertile imagination. Thus, to reach the conclusion that the Scudder character is Block’s alter ego may be going too far. It really remains the task of Block’s biographer or literary scholars to do the extensive investigation to determine what inspired Block and the connection between Block’s life and that of this particular character of his.

As stated earlier, A Drop of the Hard Stuff takes place 6 years subsequent to the events of All the Flowers are Dying. Scudder is now in his seventies and the book opens with his having a late night session with his best friend Mick Ballou, who is also a septuagenarian. (“[T]wo old men up past our bedtimes, talking and drinking water.”) They get to talking about how differently people in similar circumstances turn out. Mick points out, as a suitable example, how he was a career criminal, while one of his brothers is a priest and another a legitimate businessman. Scudder then launches into a story about a boyhood acquaintance, Jack Ellery. After Scudder moved out of the Bronx neighborhood where they grew up, he lost touch with Ellery and the next time he sees him is some years later, when Scudder was still a cop. Ellery is in a police lineup. He had turned into a small time hood.

Scudder relates after that time,  the next time he sees Ellery is at an AA meeting some years later, after Scudder had left the force, and during his first year of sobriety, which would be just after the events of Eight Million Ways to Die, at the end of which Scudder himself finally stopped drinking “after too many blackouts and too many hangovers, after a couple of trips to detox and at least one seizure,” and before those of Out on the Cutting Edge, when he first befriends Mick Ballou.

Whereas they did not speak at the time of the lineup encounter, Scudder and Ellery do get reacquainted this latter time. Ellery admits to his life of crime and that he had done time. While in jail he realized that each time he committed crime he was high. He managed to stay sober in jail, wanted to remain so, but was unable to do so upon release. Then a most unlikely fellow (“a gay guy,…this wispy little queen, this guy I have less in common with than a … Martian”) agreed to be his sponsor. Greg Stillman was a real so called “Step Nazi” who had Ellery work his way systematically and rigorously through Alcoholic Anonymous’s 12 steps. Stillman gave Ellery the push he needed to get on the straight and narrow and it worked, as by the time Scudder met up with him again, Ellery was in his second year of sobriety.

At the time Scudder and Ellery reconnect, Ellery was working on Step 9, when a recovering alcoholic makes amends to those he/she had harmed. However, in the course of Ellery’s doing so, someone kills him, by shooting him first in the forehead, then in the mouth.

Stillman blames himself, fearing that he pushed Ellery so hard that he made amends to someone so annoyed with Ellery that he killed him. Stillman is also conflicted: Should he reveal to the police the names of the five persons Ellery set out to make amends to? Would this subvert Ellery’s intention to make up to these persons and instead cause them grief again? The sponsor feared that given these fellows unsavory pasts, the cops would presume them to be suspects and ride them hard.

Instead, Stillman utilizes Scudder’s services, aware that Scudder does “favors” for people who return the favor by paying him money. So, he gives Scudder $1,000 to investigate the five on Ellery’s Step 9 list and to report to the police any who appear responsible for Ellery’s death.

Scudder visits them all, except the one with the perfect alibi: he’s sitting in some jail. As it turns out, the others do not appear to be suspects at all. The array of reactions among the four is fascinating:

“[O]ne guy [whom Ellery burglarized and ruined financially] punched him out and wound up hugging him and weeping in his arms, and another guy [whom Ellery beat up during the course of a holdup] told him to take his amends and shove them (where the sun don’t shine). And one said beating me on a coke deal was doing me a favor, and the other said everybody [screwed] my wife.”

Scudder clears them all. But the killer remains at large and Scudder couldn’t stop there. Who wants to keep Ellery quiet? Scudder learns that he had a partner who initiated the events that led to Ellery’s participating in a murder during a burglary, which Ellery revealed to Stillman as part of Step 4. Could it be this partner, to whom Ellery had no amends to make, who killed Ellery to shut him up in case he revealed this partner’s identity while making amends to someone for the murder?

Next, one of the four to whom Ellery made amends is killed while being mugged and Stillman himself is found hung, the apparent victim of suicide. While there is no reason for the police to doubt that the murder was anything but a murder during the course of the mugging and the suicide was anything but that, Scudder was troubled by the coincidence. He realizes that the mugged fellow had been trying to reach him by phone, but he had a common name and Scudder did not realize it was this particular person who called. Also, Stillman failed to leave a note, which was unusual.

Then, Scudder himself is a target, as the killer is certainly aware that Scudder is on his trail. The killer attacks a particular weakness of Scudder’s, alcohol—at a particularly vulnerable time for him, his first anniversary of sobriety. As clever and insidious as the killer is, and as everyone knows that Scudder will survive to reach his 70’s (he’s 45 during the events of Hard Stuff), the ending of this book will not be spoiled to learn that Scudder manages to dodge this “bullet.”

There would be the inevitable showdown between Scudder and the killer, and suffice it to say that readers will find its ultimate resolution surprising and satisfying.

As this glimpse demonstrates, Hard Stuff is vintage Scudder. It is a must read for Scudder and Block fans and for those who love crime fiction in particular and masterful writing generally. Despite being the same age as Scudder, Block has certainly not yet settled into a “comfortable retirement,” as with A Drop of the Hard Stuff he has churned out a story that is worthy of the Scudder and Block brand.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 28 readers
PUBLISHER: Mulholland Books (May 12, 2011)
REVIEWER: Hagen Baye
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Lawrence Block
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our reviews of:

Hope to Die (Matt Scudder series)
Small Town
The Burglar on the Prowl (Bernie Rhodenbarr series)
Grifter’s Game (Hard Case Crime)
All the Flowers are Dying (Matt Scudder series)
Girl with the Long Green Heart (Hard Case Crime)
Hit Parade (John Keller series)
Lucky at Cards (Hard Case Crime)
Hit and Run (John Keller series)
A Diet of Treacle (Hard Case Crime)
Killing Castro (Hard Case Crime)


Hard Case Crimes reprints:

Matthew Scudder Mysteries

Keller Series:

Bernie Rhodenbarr Mysteries (reprinted 2006)

Evan Tanner Mysteries (reprinted in 2007):

Writing as Paul Kavanagh


Movies from Books:

  • Nightmare Honeymoon (based on Deadly Honeymoon)
  • Eight Million Ways to Die (1985)
  • Burglar (loosely based on The Burglar in the Closet) (1987)
  • Keller (based on Hit Man)
  • A Walk Among the Tombstones

May 14, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: 2011 Favorites, New York City, Sleuths Series, y Award Winning Author

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