I’ve written about John Sandford and what I think makes him such a great writer. Now I’m reading the last book by Lawrence Block, the last in the Matt Scudder series, called A Drop of the Hard Stuff. He hasn’t written a Scudder in quite a few years, so I was looking forward to seeing how Matt was doing. He’s doing just fine. Same old Matt, aging year by year in real time, plodding along as he’s always done. But in this one, he’s telling his old friend Mick Ballou about a childhood friend of his. So it’s a flashback to a time after Matt has left the police force, after he’s finally gotten off the booze and the endless AA meetings he attended. I’ve read the entire series twice because I found Matt and the other characters so interesting. And now I’m trying to understand what makes Block such a unique writer. The style is purely Matt Scudder, nothing fancy, each word simple and straightforward, each scene described in black and white, with booze always at its center. I’ve learned more than I ever wanted to learn about AA and its precepts. But that’s an important part of the series and the style. Matt Scudder is a dark character, much like Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, and his style of detecting is dark and plodding, and sometimes violent, especially when he enlists the help of Mick Ballou, who owns a bar and is on the left side of the law. In this one, he tells Mick about meeting Jack Ellery, years after they were in grade school together in the Bronx, each of them going separate ways, Matt into the police, Jack into two-bit burglary and liquor store holdups. But they meet at an AA meeting, with Jack apparently now off the booze and wanting to set his life right. But then he’s killed by someone who shot him in the mouth and between the eyes. And Matt simply has to track the killer down.
Now a semi-long excerpt to give you a taste of this style so difficult to pin down:
So he stayed sober in prison. Then they let him out and he came home to New York and got a room in an SRO hotel a couple of blocks from Penn Station, and by the third night he was drinking blended whiskey around the corner in a place called the Terminal Lounge.
“So called because of its location,” he said, “but the name would have fit the place even if it had been in the middle of Jackson Heights. Fucking joint was the end of the line.”
Except of course it wasn’t. The line ran its zigzag course for another couple of years, during which time he stayed out of trouble with the law but couldn’t stay out of the bars. He’d go to meetings and begin to put a little time together, and then he’d have one of those oh-what-the-hell moments, and the next thing he knew he was in a bar, or taking a long pull on a bottle. He hit a few detoxes, and his blackouts started lasting longer, and he knew what the future held and didn’t see how he could avoid it.
If you’ve never read this series by Lawrence Block, now seventeen books stretching over thirty-five years, you should give him a try. He’s well worth the read.