Monday, 12 September 2011


It's odd that Lawrence Block, by going back to the early days of Matt Scudder's career as an unlicensed private eye, has created a book so valedictory. It also says a lot about the quality of Block's writing that he can sublimate the mystery element to what amounts to a minute examination of Scudder and his fight against alcoholism and make it so engrossing.

The story is told in flashback, by Scudder, reflecting the novel itself. It's a way for two friends to see the night through, and reminds us of Scudder's essential uncertainty in the face of the vast darkness he confronts. In this sense, the character he has always resembled most is Donald Westlake's Mitch Tobin (in the novels written by Tucker Coe), and AA has been his version of Tobin's brick wall.

Scudder's tale concerns the killing of a boyhood acquaintance of his, whom he first re-encounters when he was still a cop, as a suspect in a lineup, and then meets again through AA. Jack Ellery was deeply involved in the ninth step of AA's 12-step programme, offering amends to those he had wrong over his years of drinking. One of those people has shot him dead, and Ellery's sponsor wants Scudder to investigate, as some of the people on 'High-Low' Jack's list might not appreciate their own stories being passed on to the police, even if they weren't the one who killed him.

At heart, the story is a classic mystery, complete with clues which the reader can follow and, as more bodies begin to accumulate, guess the identity of the killer. But that serves merely as the framework for Scudder's story, as he reaches the end of his first year without a drink, finds relationships coming and going, and eventually solves the mystery, although without achieving any sort of justice for Jack. And that fits with what Block is saying about Scudder and about life, that sometimes the result is simply getting through unscathed, and the knowledge that you have done what you could to prevent further harm in the future is more important than the sense of justice, or revenge, or indeed moral vindication you might have sought. Alcoholism may be the affliction, but the real disease is life, and how we cope with it. Life is the real hard stuff.

A Drop Of The Hard Stuff by Lawrence Block
Orion, £12.99, ISBN 9781409124825

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