Maureen Corrigan reviews Lawrence Block’s ‘A Drop of the Hard Stuff’

Sometimes, you open up a book, and you just know: You’re in the hands of a master. Different things can signal that a golden read is about to begin: the voice, for sure (Hello, Holden, Huck and Jane Eyre — I’m talking about you!); the atmosphere (see the prologue to “The Turn of the Screw”); or the setting (a day trip to Baskerville Hall or Thomas Mann’s Venice, anyone?).

In the case of Lawrence Block’s latest Matthew Scudder novel, the tip-off is a brazenly simple plot premise, executed faultlessly. The storyline of “A Drop of the Hard Stuff” is like that apocryphal tale of Leonardo da Vinci drawing a perfect circle, freehand. There’s no need for red herrings or subplots here. Block, who was years ago rightly anointed a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America, has so perfected a pared-down, hard-boiled style that this story — about good intentions that backfire, fatally — seems to tell itself.

“A Drop of the Hard Stuff” is a prequel to the Scudder series in the sense that it takes place earlier than most of his other 16 novels about the recovering alcoholic private eye. The present-time introduction finds Matt sipping a club soda at a saloon table with his old compatriot, Mick Ballou, the proprietor of Grogan’s Open House in Hell’s Kitchen.

Mick, who has moonlighted throughout the Scudder series as a cold-blooded killer, is now tamed by marriage to a much younger woman; he has long enjoyed sobriety and a measure of happiness with his second wife, Elaine, a former hooker. Here’s how Block moodily marks the passing of the years:

“The gentrification of the neighborhood has had its effect on Grogan’s, although the bar hasn’t changed much inside or out. But the local hard cases have mostly died or moved on, and the crowd these days is a gentler and more refined bunch. There’s Guinness on draft, and a good selection of single-malt Scotches and other premium whiskeys. But it’s the joint’s raffish reputation that draws them. They get to point out the bullet holes in the walls, and tell stories about the notorious past of the bar’s owner. Some of the stories are true.”

Time has Disney-fied the violence that once was the hallmark of the world Matt and Mick shared. No wonder that in the wee hours of the morning, the two men turn away from their rather flat present and seek solace in the roiling darkness of the past. Matt begins telling a story about a hood nicknamed “High-Low” Jack Ellery, who’d been a friend during his Bronx boyhood. Around 1971, in the terrible first year of his sobriety when Matt abandoned his old life (cop job, wife and sons) and moved into a charmless West Side hotel room to carve out a living as a private eye, he ran into Ellery again at an AA meeting.

At that meeting, Ellery tells Matt he’s straightened up in more ways than one and is determined to stay away from the twin lures of crime and boozing. In fact, Ellery says that with the help of his sponsor, he’s been working his way through the Twelve Steps, and he’s now embarking on No. 9: making amends to all the people he’d harmed while he was drinking. It turns out, though, that someone doesn’t want Ellery confessing to past wrongs, and before he can make much progress on Step 9, he’s stopped in his tracks, permanently.

On the face of it, the rest of “A Drop of the Hard Stuff” is a taut suspense story about how Matt tracks down the people on Ellery’s “amends” list to figure out who wanted him dead. The culprit turns out to be a genuine embodiment of The Devil, a person whose breezy cruelty still haunts Matt as he sits, lost in bitter memories, during his late-night confession session at Grogan’s with Mick.

Like a lot of great mystery fiction, then, “A Drop of the Hard Stuff” is also a ghost story: Specters of vanished New York City places and half-forgotten tragedies (like that of the steamship General Slocum, which caught fire and sank in the East River in 1891) appear throughout the novel along with long-dead characters such as Matt’s own beloved AA sponsor. Matt can’t quite exorcise these phantoms, though his attempt to do so results in a superb tale about the stubborn persistence of memory and regret.

Corrigan, who is the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air,” teaches literature at Georgetown University.

a drop of the hard stuff

by Lawrence Block

Little, Brown, 319 pp. $25.99

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