by Lawrence Block
Mulholland Books, 2010
Review by Robert Scott Stewart, Ph.D. on Mar 22nd 2011
"I've often wondered … how it would all have gone if I'd taken a different turn." So begins Lawrence Block's new mystery novel, A Drop of the Hard Stuff, the last in a series of 17 novels featuring Mathew Scudder, a recovering alcoholic and ex NYC policeman turned unofficial private investigator. As it opens, Scudder and his long time friend, the violent criminal and saloon owner, Mick Ballou, are sitting up late in Mick's saloon reminiscing about how their lives have turned out, and how they could have turned out differently. This leads Scudder to tell Mick a story from a number of years ago during his first year of sobriety. The story centers on the murder of Jack Ellery, a petty criminal and acquaintance of Scudder, who was also recovering from alcoholism. Hired by Ellery's AA sponsor, Scudder comes to think that Ellery's murder may have resulted from his fulfilling steps 8 and 9 of AA's 12 step program, which stipulate that one make a list of all persons they harmed and make amends to them. Scudder comes to believe that Ellery wanted to make amends for a murder he and a former partner in crime committed. Upon hearing of Ellery's plan, his former partner murdered him to keep him quiet.
Unfortunately, the mystery of Ellery's murder and Scudder's solving of it isn't up to Block's Scudder series standards. But those standards are exceedingly high: at their best, the Scudder novels are as good as mystery writing gets. But I would argue that the novel's real focus isn't the mystery of Ellery's murder. Rather it is on an issue related to the novel's first line. What forces govern the direction(s) our lives take? To what extent do we individually have control over these events, and to what extent is it the product of chance, luck (either good or bad), or some 'master plan' imposed by some 'higher power.' Ultimately, the novel is about recovery, particularly from alcohol. In this respect, it is significant that while in other Scudder novels, violence, which is always lying just under the surface threatening to burst out, is typically his main threat; Scudder's main menace in A Drink of the Hard Stuff is alcohol. Hence, when his main foe threatens him, he does so by leaving an open bottle of bourbon on his apartment table.
During the course of the novel, Scudder attends AA meetings all over Manhattan as he nears his first year anniversary of sobriety. Relatively new to the program, Scudder focuses on getting through one day at a time without alcohol, and so he is not formally engaged in going through any of the program's twelve steps. And yet, he constantly reflects on them and on issues they raise. For example, the first three insist that we stop thinking that the world revolves around us and that we alone have ultimate control over all aspects of our lives. Hence, the first three steps require that one admits they are powerless over alcohol, that their lives have become unmanageable, that they must believe in a Greater Power that can restore them to sanity, and that they make a decision to turn their will and their lives over to the care of God.
Scudder struggles to accept the message of these steps. Though he spends lots of time sitting in churches thinking and tithing anonymously whatever income he receives for doing favors for his friends, as he describes his work as a private PI, Scudder is not an overtly religious man. He certainly seems skeptical of the Christian belief in a benevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent God, and seems instead to believe that "Life is but a game and we are the playthings of the gods."
This belief seems supported, at least indirectly, at the novel's end. Without revealing too much of the its ending, let me simply say that though Scudder finds Ellery's murderer, he is unable to bring him to justice. Indeed, he and the murderer are in a "Mexican standoff" and both are forced to go their own ways without an ultimate resolution, which Scudder seems to accept. Ultimately, then, the novel seems to leave us with the message of the Serenity Prayer, yet another foundation of the AA movement: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference."
A Drop of the Hard Stuff is certainly worth the read even though it is one of the lesser novels in the series. Fans of the Scudder series will be disappointed that while his AA sponsor, Jim Faber, is a central character in the book; other characters from the series are not. Mick Ballou makes only a cursory appearance at the beginning and end, and TJ, the Times Square hustler who became an invaluable part of his investigative 'team' as well as a surrogate son, and his wife, Elaine Mardell, an ex hooker turned art gallery owner and philanthropist, are absent. But the city of New York is, as always, omnipresent as is the crisp dialogue, witty repartee, and thought inspiring questions about life and our place in it.
Block has said that this will be the last Scudder novel. For those of us who have been fans of the series for many, many years, this is sad news. And yet, as Scudder might say, the time for it has perhaps come.
© 2011 Robert Scott Stewart
Robert Scott Stewart, Ph.D., Professor and Chair of Philosophy, Cape Breton University