Friday, November 25, 2011

A Drop of the Hard Stuff by Lawrence Block

Time moves ever-forward. It's a cliche, of course -- but only because it's so deeply true that we don't need to be reminded of it. But even artforms that don't need to worry about the passage of time -- without actors getting older or voices thickening -- still need to nod in the direction of changing times, even if that nod quickly turns into a shake of the head.

It's most complicated for a series of books -- any single book can cover as much, or as little, time as it wants, starting anywhere and ending anywhere. But that second book assumes that the first happened, to those people at that time, and that at least a moment has passed since then. And then the third, and the fourth -- and so on, and so on. Particularly in a genre that requires physical exertion from its protagonists, like a spy thriller or a hardboiled mystery, the damage can mount up quickly, and the reader can find herself counting on her fingers to work out just how old, exactly, this dashing young man can possibly be.

Some authors nod, and only nod -- Robert Parker's Spencer books pretended to see time passing, but his characters never seemed to age, even when they should have been well above AARP qualifications. And some don't even nod, as with most of Agatha Christine's series and the Stephanie Plum books by Janet Evanovich, where things are always exactly the same even if very slightly different. And a few devise their own fiendishly complicated systems, most famously Sue Grafton's Kinsey Milhone, who will spend her entire career trapped in the 1980s while the rest of us hurtle on much more quickly into an unknowable future.

But most writers grudgingly allow time to continue, and to wound the heels of their characters, letting them get more battered and tired (but, one hopes, shrewder and more experienced) along the way. Lawrence Block's series of novels about Matthew Scudder -- ex-NYPD cop, unlicensed private investigator, erstwhile alcoholic -- has followed its hero from the depths of the '70s, and of his darkest drinking years, up through 2005's All the Flowers Are Dying, with Matt feeling every day of the years in between. (Though Block did fiddle slightly with some of the details of Scudder's backstory; originally, Scudder had been on the force for ten years, and had been off it for some time before 1976's The Sins of the Fathers, making him in his mid-thirties then and thus pushing seventy now.)

The 2011 Scudder novel, A Drop of the Hard Stuff, sidesteps that problem by being a flashback -- the first flashback novel since 1986's When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, generally considered the best book in the excellent series -- set around thirty years ago, soon after the events of 1982's Eight Million Ways To Die and Scudder's early days of sobriety. So the Scudder here is a younger man, battered by somewhat less life than the contemporary version, but still having seen a lot of hard road.

As usual with a late Scudder novel, the plot emerges slowly, from an accretion of events. Scudder runs into an old friend from hid Bronx childhood, Jack Ellery, at an AA meeting. Ellery is an ex-con, newly sober, with a long list of sins and flaws to atone for and the new convert's zeal to do that atonement. Ellery is setting out to right as many of his wrongs as he can -- to apologize for every bad decision and wrong action that he ever did while under the influence.

And that gets him killed. Scudder starts investigating, and his mulish sense of responsibility, guilt, and curiosity keeps him pushing forward, through dead ends and unlikely connections, until he learns who killed Jack Ellery, and why. I won't go into more detail, since those details are half of what makes A Drop of the Hard Stuff so enjoyable.

The other half is Block's mature novelistic voice: conversational but always controlled, able to effortlessly string out a conversation for a chapter or sketch a dingy room in two paragraphs, quietly compelling and as smooth and easily flowing as that seductive stuff Scudder needs to keep himself from drinking. Block is a master, and this is another fine novel -- by turns exciting and ruminative -- from one of the very best writers of mystery around.

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