A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF
By Lawrence Block
Mulholland Books (Little, Brown), $25.99, 319 pages
In the good old bad days, you could count on a private detective being a brawler, a drunk, and a sexist pig. Today, it's rare to encounter a shamus who has even one of these "failings." (And you'd be slammed for using that antiquated label to describe him.)
Elmore Leonard's sleuths use reason to solve their problems; the late Robert B. Parker's favorite private eye, Spenser, is a model boy friend who leaves most of the heavy punching to his muscular sidekick; and Michael Connolly's heroes could probably ace the LSATs. This is not to say that the books in which these crime solvers appear are not enjoyable to read; they most definitely are. But Mickey Spillane wouldn't read past the first chapter.
Now comes Matthew Scudder, long-time good guy created by Lawrence Block, who has written so many books, and so many best-sellers, that it takes the publisher of this one two full pages of small type to list them all. Mr. Scudder, a former cop who went private, no longer drinks. But he's still new to the sobriety game, and he clings with great tenacity to that venerable lifeline known as the AA meeting. Fortunately for him, he lives and works in New York City, where meetings are easier to find then cabs during rush hour.
Growing up in the Bronx, Matthew Scudder had a friend named Jack Ellery (as in Queen) who became a career criminal, but not a very good one. Decades later, Scudder sees him again, but they don't speak because it's through the one-way glass of a police line-up, in which the robbery witness should have, but didn't, ID Ellery.
When Scudder runs into Ellery again, it's only two years later, but a lot has changed for Matt. He's left the police force where he'd made detective and his home in the suburbs where hed made life miserable for his wife and family. He lives in a cheap hotel and works as an unlicensed private eye.
"Then, after too many blackouts and too many hangovers, after a couple of trips to detox and at least one seizure, the day came when I left a drink untouched on top of a bar and found my way to an AA meeting. I'd been to meetings before, and I'd tried to stay sober, but I guess I hadn't been ready, and I guess this time I was. 'My name's Matt,' I told a roomful of people, 'and I'm an alcoholic.'"
One of those people is Jack Ellery. They go for coffee, that elemental staple of all AA meetings and, probably, most recovering alcoholics. Theyre just getting to re-know one another when Jack Ellery, as the Great Spillane would have put it, "turns up dead."
Since Jack has no family and few friends, it falls to Matt, as a sort of moral duty and perhaps also a personal redemption, to find out who did it.
Steps eight and nine in AA's 12-step recovery program state, "8. Made a list of all the persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all," and "9. Made direct amends to such people whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others." Through Ellery's tough-minded sponsor (he calls himself a "step Nazi"), Scudder learns Jack Ellery had compiled a list of eight people he'd wronged and was working on doing whatever he could to balance the scale.
His efforts had been met with different results: some people appreciated it, but others still disliked him so strongly that they told him where he could put his apology. Maybe, thinks Scudder, one of them was mad enough, or scared enough, to kill him.
That begins the chase part of the story. But it's a kind of slo-mo chase, one that breaks for Matt's AA meetings followed by meals at Chinese restaurants with his sponsor, Jim, a character particularly well-drawn for this kind of thriller. Also well-drawn, though less fully, is Jan, a fellow AA member who becomes Matt's girlfriend.
Along the way we get an AA member's tour of New York City, and a very good layman's introduction into how Alcoholics Anonymous operates, and also how it works, when it does which of course it does not for everyone. Add to that a clear picture of how often and how close many recovering alcoholics get to taking a drink again and how swiftly all the hard-won gains can disappear.
By the time Matt gets close to the killer, several other people are dead, and Matt realizes he could well be the next victim. While we dont really think that will happen, to find out, youll have to read this fine book yourself.
Since 1975, Lawrence Block and Matthew Scudder have been creator and creation through 17 books. Neither one of them has lost his touch.
• John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.