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A Drop of the Hard Stuff: A Matthew Scudder Novel    by Lawrence Block order for
Drop of the Hard Stuff
by Lawrence Block
Order:  USA  Can
Mulholland, 2011 (2011)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Lawrence Block immerses both his long-time lead Matthew Scudder and the reader in the world of Alcoholics Anonymous sponsors and sponsees - and their well known twelve steps - in A Drop of the Hard Stuff. It feels all too real.

Once a respected NYPD detective, Scudder was forced out of the job after one of his stray bullets killed a young girl. His subsequent drinking binges lost him his marriage, his family and his career. He still lives in a dingy hotel room. But as this episode opens, he has stopped drinking (he's coming up to his one year anniversary soon), attends AA meetings at least once daily, talks to his sponsor (Jim Faber) often, and has a fairly regular, though fragile, relationship with a fellow alcoholic, sculptor Jan Keane.

Matt also takes on informal investigative jobs as an unlicensed PI. This latest begins after he bumps into someone he grew up with in the Bronx. 'High-Low' Jack Ellery had followed a different path from that of Scudder, who first saw him as an adult through a one-way mirror in a police line-up, and then met him years later at an AA meeting. Ellery had been sober for sixteen months under the guidance of gay Step Nazi sponsor Greg Stillman, and had started working on his amends.

When Matt sees Ellery again, he's been beaten up. The next time he hears of Ellery, the man has been shot twice - in the forehead and the mouth. Matt doesn't see this as retribution but as an efficient homicide, 'To keep him from talking.' Given the man's criminal history, the police aren't working the case hard, a contact telling Matt that 'on the dinner plate of crime ... Jack Ellery is the brussel sprouts.' But Greg Stillman hires Matt to check out those on Ellery's Eighth Step list, concerned that his amends somehow caused his death.

Despite Matt's no longer being in the NYPD, what follows is a well developed police procedural, set in the AA world. There are further deaths as more individuals from Ellery's past are silenced. Matt soon realizes that he himself is a target. His Mexican standoff handling of the situation is unusual and the story ends - as it began - in a bar. I enjoyed this smooth and atmospheric mystery very much, and plan to read more of Lawrence Block's impressive body of work.

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