A Drop of the Hard Stuff
By Lawrence Block
How’s this for daunting? May 10, I fulfill a lifelong dream by publishing my first novel. Purgatory Chasm introduces amateur sleuth Conway Sax. He’s a recovering alcoholic, and AA is tightly woven into (indeed, inseparable from) the story.
Two days later, there’s another novel coming. Its protagonist is an amateur sleuth. He’s a recovering alcoholic, and AA is tightly woven into (indeed, inseparable from) the story.
Who is this copycat? Hell, it’s only Lawrence Block. And the novel, A Drop of the Hard Stuff, is only the much-anticipated 17th book in the Matthew Scudder series.
Longtime Scudder fan that I am, I twisted a few arms and scored an advance copy of Hard Stuff. The book is outstanding.
Block sets up his story as a reminiscence, as Scudder and a friend idly wonder whether they could have taken different paths through life. The friend asks if Scudder – a former NYPD cop who now functions as an unlicensed private investigator – could have been a criminal instead. In pondering the question, Scudder recalls the story of Jack Ellery, a boy he grew up with in the Bronx who became first a criminal, then a murdered criminal.
Here’s the nice thing about this framework: it pulls Scudder back to his first year of sobriety. Indeed, his first anniversary approaches as he investigates the murder of the small-time crook. Because Ellery had sobered up and joined Alcoholics Anonymous before being killed, AA is everywhere in this book. I hereby declare a new subgenre: the AA procedural. Scudder sits in his rented room. He selects a meeting. He makes his way to the meeting. Afterward, he drinks coffee or dines with AA friends. At every step, he learns a bit more about the suspects.
The intensity of that first year of AA shows on every page. Scudder often hits two or more meetings a day; things with his girlfriend Jan get bumpy as he approaches his AA anniversary, a notoriously rough time for relationships; he ponders AA’s Twelve Steps; he calls his sponsor frequently.
At the perfect time (two-thirds of the way through the story, nearly to the page – hey, you don’t become a Mystery Writers of America Grand Master without knowing how to construct one of these things), Block bumps up the stakes and the urgency, and then it’s hell-bent-for-leather to the finish.
For me, two things stand out about Hard Stuff. The first is its pacing, which is deceptive. At a glance, some might say that not a lot happens until the story hits its crisis point. Scudder walks to an AA meeting. Scudder eats with Jan. Scudder has a passive-aggressive non-argument with Jan. Scudder walks home and calls his sponsor.
As I thought it through, I realized Block’s pace was actually the effortless gait of the natural athlete, the guy who looks like he’s jogging at a 10-minute-mile pace but turns out to be running 6:30s. The master storyteller makes everything count. Every arc and every thread pays off, every Act 1 gun-on-the-wall is fired in Act 3.
The other thing I love about the book – and I believe, with no evidence whatsoever, this explains why Block set the story early in Scudder’s sobriety – is the protagonist’s subtle but unmistakable growth as he examines, for the first time in his life, the behavior and thought patterns that brought him to AA. In particular, Scudder’s self-sabotaging attitudes toward Jan nearly form a running gag in the novel: he often thinks they’re having a big fight, or are on the verge of one, but we can see that from Jan’s point of view there’s no problem whatsoever – other than her moody boyfriend. This is subtle stuff, difficult to pull off with a first-person narrator/protagonist.
It’s good to have Scudder and Block back. Here’s hoping we don’t have to wait another six years for the next one.