Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Summer Reading List: A Drop Of The Hard Stuff

By Jay Stringer

Summer is here. Well, it's not here, because summer is never here in Glasgow. We have that one day a year when the big yellow thing comes out in the sky, and we all panic, paint ourselves blue and prepare to leap off the nearest rooftop in preparation of the great judgement.

But enough about Glasgow. I'm talking about the world. Well, okay, I'm talking about the bits of the world that are now entering summer.

Okay, I should just back this up and start again, shouldn't I?

My point is, it's that time of year when people start to take long vacations and read more books. So I'm going to take a couple weeks to suggest a few to you.

Back when I was first really getting into crime fiction, somebody thrust a well-worn copy of Lawrence Block's Eight Million Ways To Die into my hands. I still have that copy, even though I've had chance to purchase 'better' versions of it (with nicer covers, for the book fetishist in me.) I was told it was a P.I story and I'd already read a few of those. I'd seen the films, I knew how the game went. I was already itching for crime stories told from a different point of view, I didn't want stories I'd already read, not to keep going over the same ground. Then the trick happened. Eight Million Ways To Die was the first P.I. novel to truly surprise me.

I love the P.I. genre, and there are many brilliant authors who write in it, but it was that book that gave me the kick in the right direction. I've talked about Matt Scudder many times before, both here and on the podcast, where we've also heard the character praised by Reed Farrel Coleman, Gerald So, and our very own Russel D McLean. There's little to add to the praise we've already heaped out. Or so I thought.

Then Lawrence Block went and wrote a new Scudder novel.

A Drop Of The Hard Stuff came out a few months ago from the awesome folks over at Mulholland Books. It's the first Scudder book since 2005's All The Flowers Are Dying, which seemed to be the endcap to the series, and it takes us back a couple of decades to a key era of Matt's life.

Matt Scudder was the P.I. who faced up to alcoholism. He stood up at a meeting, gave his name, and admitted his problem. Originally the series was to stop there. I mean, what story is there to tell about a P.I. who stops drinking, right? It's done, right? Somewhere along the way Lawrence Block realised that the character was still talking in his ear, that putting down the bottle was only the start, and that there were many more stories left to tell. But we've never seen those first few years, we've never seen Matt's battle with sobriety in it's infant steps. With Hard Stuff we get a glimpse at that time in the characters life, and it opens up a lot of possibilities.

Duality is a common theme on crime fiction. It's built into the very DNA of the genre, where we write about the haves and the have nots. Playing with this basic duality is a rich vein, and here Block shows us the different road that Scudder could have gone. He is hired to investigate the death of a childhood friend from the Bronx. When Matt Scudder zigged and became a cop, Jack Ellery zagged and became a criminal. Flip sides of the same coin, their lives circling each other over the years without ever coming back together. They both ended up in A.A. though, because there are some things you can't outrun.

Ellery was following the twelve steps and attempting to atone for past sins, and it got him killed. Scudder has to follow the trail, facing up to his own mortality at the same time as his own disease, and put the pieces together before the killer can vanish into the crowd of NYC.

What follows is exactly what we've come to expect from Scudder. It's a meditation on honesty, fidelity and addiction. Which sins need atoning for, and which are forgotten the minute you commit them? And what small measures do we use to keep on getting through the day?

Some crime novels are about the act. About the violence, the murder or the confrontation. But Hard Stuff is about consequences. It's about walking your feet back over old ground and having to think things through.

I'm usually not a fan of bookending a story, but Block is one of the few authors who can do it well. He used the trick to great effect in When The Sacred Ginmill Closes, which is my personal favourite, and he does it again here. The book opens with Scudder in his twilight years, in the modern Hells Kitchen, before flashing back to the mid-80's. It's a bitter sweet feeling to go back in time and see characters who pass away later in the series. It's also a great way to chronicle the gentrification of the neighbourhood, to show that the mean streets are still there, but that they're now much cleaner, and decorated with Starbucks. There's a sense of melancholy hanging over the book that probably wouldn't be there without the framing device, and that's why it works so well.

One of the best tributes I can pay to Block is New York City. I visited the city for the first time last summer after a lifetime of reading about it. I blogged about my experience last summer, of the odd sense of familiarity mixed in with such an exciting and alien city. The streets may look different from the books, and the cast may have changed, but I felt a strange sense of familiarity as I explored the city on foot, and a large part of that was down to Lawrence Block and Matt Scudder.

He's the character who won't go away. Every time the author has put him on the shelf, he's climbed back down for another go. I hope we get to see more of this era, so see more of his early faltering steps on the road to redemption.

A Drop Of The Hard Stuff is available right now from Mulholland and is one of the books under consideration over that DoSomeDamage Book Group.

Next week I'll be adding a comedy to your reading list. Or a travel book. Or a political book. Or an exercise manual or....well....it's all of those things.


Thomas Pluck said...

I discovered Block the same way, someone handing me 8 Million Ways to Die and being blown away. I remember Out on the Cutting Edge being my favorite for a while. And Dance at the Slaughterhouse and Walk Among the Tombstones are my favorite plots. I need to re-read Ginmill.
Block still has it. He is a master of dialogue, and using it to drive the story. Not much happens in Hard Stuff, does it? It leans toward the cozy, even though Matt is younger. But it's gripping and full of strong characters, and has a very satisfying and subtle ending.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Ginmill is my favorite too. I just wish my copy had larger print so I could read it again.

Scott D. Parker said...

I learned about Block via an excellent set of books covering hard-boiled and noir literature: Hard Case Crime. I read the first four Block books, and then read the first Scudder novel. Love this guy, and especially the ending of HCC book #1: Grifter's Game. Looking forward to the new Block coming soon from HCC.