Books and movies would have us believe that boozing and sleuthing go hand in hand. But for years now, Matthew Scudder, the white knight of Lawrence Block's compellingly dark New York City crime novels, has been the private eye who doesn't drink. A divorced ex-cop turned unlicensed investigator, he's got reasons for putting the bottle behind him. Not only did drinking destroy his family life, but while still in uniform and under the influence he accidentally shot a 6-year-old girl while firing at two stickup men. Scudder made his debut in 1976's The Sins of the Fathers, though it took until 1982's Eight Million Ways to Die for him to start sobering up. Since then he's worked his cases as scrupulously as he's attended AA meetings.
Though it's the 17th book in the series, A Drop of the Hard Stuff (Mulholland Books/Little, Brown) is the perfect introduction to Scudder's shadow-strewn world and the pleasures of Block's crisp yet brooding prose. (Scudder describes his no-frills digs as "a place to sleep when I could and stare out the window when I couldn't.") As in 1986's When the Sacred Ginmill Closes the series' high point and an essential New York City novel in any genre the action is set in the past (here, sometime in the early 1980s) seen through a present-day frame, adding a pulsing note of melancholy.
Born in 1938, Block has published prolifically for over half a century. His early output included both note-perfect noir and pseudonymous pornographic paperbacks; he's since built addictive franchises around a thieving bookstore owner and a stamp-collecting assassin, scripted a film for Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-wai and written a not-as-boring-as-it-sounds memoir about racewalking. But it's Scudder, teetotaling P.I., who remains Block's signature creation.
By Scudder's previous outing in 2005, he'd become sober and downright uxorious: a better person but a diluted presence, even as the crimes remained nasty. Everybody Dies, Hope to Die, All the Flowers Are Dying the titles of the past three Scudders themselves telegraphed exhaustion. Slipping out of the series' chronology, A Drop of the Hard Stuff reads like it's been jolted by factory-fresh defibrillator pads, as Scudder recalls his first, nerve-rattling year of sobriety. Here, his devotion to Alcoholics Anonymous not only shades in his character but also sets up the case. Following AA's Twelve Steps, Jack Ellery, a fellow recovering alcoholic and former felon, put together a list of people he'd hurt while drinking (Step 8) and attempted to make amends with them (Step 9). Ellery turns up dead, a bullet to the mouth, and Scudder figures that someone on the list wanted him to keep quiet about his lowlife past.
The suspects have vivid walk-on parts, particularly Scooter Williams, who's spent the past 25 years stoned. He's both comic relief (his first joint got him "noticing all the subtleties of peanut butter") and a key piece of the puzzle. Similarly, the book's entertaining riffs on language musing on the difference between a sobriquet and a nickname, or the reason why a supermarket misspells its name "Piomeer" are more significant than they first appear.
More impressive than these bursts of cleverness is the way Block makes the hard work of sobriety totally gripping. Just walking down the street is like a high-wire act: scarcely a chapter passes without a report on another AA meeting attended, and as Scudder works his case, gumshoeing it around a cell-phone-free Manhattan, he makes sure he's armed with quarters to call his sponsor in the event of temptation. When someone attempts to vanquish Scudder by exploiting his addiction, it's every bit as hair-raising as, say, the psychosexual butchery in A Walk Among the Tombstones.
AA meetings traditionally end with the Serenity Prayer: "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." The book's ending elegantly echoes the prayer, and this surrender to a higher power subtly infuses Scudder's voice throughout. A bracing distillation of Block's powers, A Drop of the Hard Stuff would be a fitting close to the Scudder series if only it didn't leave the reader wanting more.