Have I mentioned here lately how much I admire the work of Lawrence Block? He's one of the best mystery/crime writers to emerge in the latter half of the twentieth century and the quality of his work has not diminished now that we are well into the twenty-first century. A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF (2011), which I finished reading last night, is the seventeenth book in the Matthew Scudder series, a run of books that Block began way back in 1976 with the publication of SINS OF THE FATHERS. I've read several Scudder books over the years (not all of them) and I've enjoyed each and every one of them.
Scudder is an interesting character. He's an ex-cop who quit the NYPD after he accidentally shot and killed a young girl in the course of bringing down fleeing criminals. His pain and guilt drove his wife and sons away and he found solace in the bottle. But Scudder eventually overcame his addiction and lives life as a recovering alcoholic while working as an unlicensed private detective in New York City.
I don't know if Block himself has gone through the Alcoholics Anonymous twelve-step program or if he knows someone who has or if he's just a very, very good writer but he gets the gritty details of life in AA right. It's a fascinating milieu in which to set a series of crime novels and we learn much (possibly more) about AA than we've ever known before. In this regard, the Scudder novels are similar to Block's series about professional hit man Keller, who spends his non-killing time collecting stamps. The Keller books always contain a lot of info about the stamp world as Scudder's adventures always involve AA. No complaint really, because both series and characters are extremely well drawn and compelling.
A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF takes place during Scudder's first year of sobriety. Scudder grew up with one Jack Ellery. Scudder became a cop. Ellery became a crook. Both became drunks. When Ellery gets sober and begins working the steps, he makes a list of the people he needs to make amends to. Before you know it, Ellery is murdered, shot once in the mouth and once in the head. Scudder figures the killer is someone on Ellery's list. But he soon clears all of the suspects and the case appears to have reached a dead end. But one of the people on the list is killed and then Ellery's sponsor turns up dead and it's apparent that the killer is still out there somewhere and his next target is Scudder.
Block eschews a slam-bang, action-packed finale and throws us a curve in the final chapters that nonetheless is fitting and satisfying. A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF is many things. It's a first rate whodunit (although I must confess to having correctly identified the killer early on), a story of regrets and redemption and a look at the men and women who wrestle with their own inner demons one day at a time. Highly recommended.