Wednesday 5 June 2013


If you’re the author of a well-loved character and that character has aged along with his or her fans, how can a new story idea be effectively written? The idea of James Bond limping around with a Zimmer frame and needing the toilet every half an hour isn’t immediately appealing.

Over the last year, I’ve read 3 books that have taken on this problem by writing from the point of view of the protagonist introducing a story, then retelling it as if it were just another book in the series.

George Pelecanos did it with ‘What It Was’, Reed Farrel Coleman in ‘Onion Street’ and Lawrence Block in ‘A Drop Of The Hard Stuff’.  I must say that in all these instances, the result has been a delight and so the method must work.

I must confess that when I read the first few pages of ‘A Drop Of The Hard Stuff’ I had a slightly negative reaction. The preface seemed a little clunky and contrived and I wondered if Mr Block had finally written a Scudder novel that I wasn’t going to enjoy. That’s a huge thing to say and I want to berate myself already for typing those words.  It’s a simple thing to correct the error of my ways, however, as the book took off as soon as the story proper began.

Matt Scudder hooks up with a man he used to know (High-Low Jack) when they grew up together in the Bronx. In part it has that feel of an old movie where 2 men take very different ways (think O’Brien’s priest to Cagney’s gangster). They grew up on the same side of the tracks, but somehow ended up on different trains.
A number of years later their paths cross at an AA meeting.
It turns out that Jack is much further advanced in the AA programme than Matt; Matt is about to complete his first year sober and Jack is already at the ninth-step of the famous twelve-step program.

Being at the twelfth step means that High-Low Jack is working on making amends, seeking out those he’s harmed over the years and apologising.

It turns out that Jack has been in prison and has led the life of a low-life. He’s got a lot to make up for, including a murder.
Unfortunately, while trying to put the world to rights Jack ends up scaring someone into killing him. Jack’s sponsor, a step-Nazi, feels responsible for the death and asks Matt to investigate.

The story unfolds with the usual ease, like Mr Block has simply pushed cruise control. The writing is smooth, the hooks sharp and catching and the story utterly captivating.

As with all Matt Scudder books, the case itself is only half of the story. The other half is Scudder’s day to day life and his thought processes.

In this book, much of the focus is upon the ups and downs of a reformed alcoholic.  Booze features heavily in the book in a variety of ways and I found this aspect of the novel really interesting.
There’s a line-up of brilliantly written characters, including some old favourites, there’s a love interest or 2 and there’s the usual fun and games with word-play.

My early worries were completely unfounded. It’s a special book. I’d recommend it to all Scudder fans (though I don’t think they’ll need telling), to all fans of detective fiction and to anyone who loves a strong story or wants to have a very real sense of where a book is set.

I’d also suggest that this would be a good place to start if you’re thinking of meeting Matt Scudder. I think it would leave you hungry for more and looking for the first of the Scudder (‘The Sins Of The Fathers’) books and every one since.

A terrific read.

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