Lawrence Block's "A Drop of the Hard Stuff" is an understated story that goes down as smoothly as a fine single malt Scotch. Matt Scudder, an alcoholic, member of AA, and former cop, is sitting in a saloon in Hell's Kitchen with his old pal, Mick Ballou. While nursing his club soda, Matt reminisces about events that occurred twenty-five years ago, when he was in his mid-forties--just before his first anniversary as a non-drinker.
Scudder tells Mick a lengthy tale about a boyhood acquaintance from the Bronx, Jack Ellery. While Matt grew up to be a police officer, Jack turned to crime, mostly under the influence of alcohol. One day, the two bump into one another at an AA meeting and chat about the old days. (If we didn't know by now how hard it is for an alcoholic to stay dry, Block sets us straight.) Jack, who has been in prison for armed robbery, is working his way through AA's twelve step program. He is determined to find the people he has wronged and make amends. Not a great idea, as it turns out.
"A Drop of the Hard Stuff" is suspenseful, darkly humorous, philosophical, a tad cynical, and psychologically astute. The author's writing style is relaxed and unpretentious, and the plot is skillfully constructed and absorbing. Since there was no Internet at that time, Scudder gets his information by pounding pavements, consulting snitches, and picking the brains of his contacts at the NYPD. Among the well-drawn characters are: Jan Keane, Matt's steady girlfriend, who is growing dissatisfied with their informal arrangement; Jim Faber, Scudder's wise and supportive AA sponsor; and a list of suspects whom Matt doggedly tracks down. As the weeks pass and dead bodies steadily pile up, the case becomes personal. Scudder has his hands full trying to outsmart a clever and elusive killer. To his credit, Block avoids a tidy resolution. Instead, he embraces life as it is: messy, unpredictable, challenging, and often infuriatingly unfair.