A Drop of the Hard Stuff is the 17th novel in the Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block. I’m reading the series out of order, because many of the earlier titles are hard to find, and I have to say his later writings are pretty bad. As an old man, Block waxes rhapsodic about New York and that’s about it. To a non-New Yorker it’s very boring.
2 out of 10 stars for a very boring book.
This is the last full-length novel written in the Matthew Scudder series. The 18th novel is actually a collection of short stories that I have no desire to read. Although the last in the series, it’s actually one very long flashback of an earlier case that happened during Scudder’s first year of sobriety, back when he was with Jan Keane, the cold German Jew, and they were doing cruel things to each other for sport. Back when he and other cops robbed the dead and took bribes as a daily business, and back when he let murderers go free because it was just too much effort to put them in prison and it might rub someone the wrong way. That’s New York, according to Scudder, according to Block. Remind me again, how’d this guy get to be a grand master of mystery writing?
Jack Ellery is a kid from Scudder’s old neighborhood. When Scudder joined the force, Jack ended up in prison, doing time for just one of the many crimes he committed. But Scudder remembers years earlier a lineup in which the woman identified the wrong man and Jack got away with some other crime. Now Jack is sober and attending the same meetings as Scudder and on his 8th and 9th steps, making a list of those he’s harmed and making amends to those on the list. Scudder’s approaching his first year mark of sobriety and Jack’s on his second year. There are different paths to sobriety. Scudder has chosen the long route, the one day at a time route, while Jack has chosen the step nazi way, doing each step of the twelve steps in writing. That can be dangerous if someone doesn’t want their secrets written down.
Jack shows up at an AA meeting all beat to hell and Scudder assumes he’s been drinking, that he’s slipped. But Jack shares and announces he’s two years sober. The beating, it turns out, was part of making amends to someone he wronged. Jack and Scudder talk a couple of times, a little about the old neighborhood and a little about crime. They play phone tag and then Scudder doesn’t here from Jack or see him at the meetings. The next phone call he gets is from Jack’s AA sponsor, Greg Stillman. Jack’s dead, shot once in the mouth and once in the head. In criminal circles, shooting someone in the mouth is your way of shutting them up, stopping them from ratting someone out. But Jack never intended on ratting anyone out.
Greg meets with Scudder and gives him an envelope. Inside is the 8th step list of people Jack had wronged and how he’d wronged them. He was on the 9th step, making amends, making the rounds meeting with those people and trying to make amends for how he’d harmed them. Greg hires Scudder for $1,000 to find out if someone on that list killed Jack.
The side story throughout this particular novel is the dysfunctional relationship between Scudder’s once a week lover, Jan Keane, who he keeps remarking is German and Jewish and cold, which apparently go together for the novel’s author, Lawrence Block. Halfway through the book, Jan breaks up with Scudder by meeting him at a coffee shop, showing up with her 55+ army nurse-type sponsor, dumping two shopping bags of his things on the table, and demanding her keys. No explanation. Just a public humiliation. A week earlier, Scudder had cheated on her with another chick from their AA meetings, who’d just dumped her boyfriend. Apparently a lot of this goes on at AA, but I didn’t care for reading about it.
Dennis Redmond is the detective who catches Jack’s murder. He’s not investigating too hard because Jack was a known criminal. His specialty was armed robbery, going into small mom and pop stores and holding them up at gunpoint. His nickname, or criminal name, was High Low Jack, but no one knew how he got the moniker.
Scudder goes through Jack’s 8th step list and narrows the possible murderers down to five men: Alan MacLeish, Crosby Hart, Mark Settenstein, Frankie Dukes, and Robert Williams.
Alan MacLeish turns out to be known by his criminal name of Piper MacLeish and he’s in prison. He couldn’t have killed Jack and it doesn’t appear he had any reason to want him dead. His name is crossed off first.
Mark Settenstein is the next person Scudder gets hold of and it turns out he’s the one who beat Jack to a pulp. Jack showed up at his place, told him what he’d done, and asked what he could do to make it right. Mark told him he’d like to punch him, so Jack stood up and told him to punch him, again and again, until Jack couldn’t stand anymore. Then the two hugged, cried, and parted as friends. Back in the day when Jack was an armed robber and had a partner, Settenstein was their fence. He’d hand off the stolen goods they brought him. And on one of these occasions, when Settenstein was away from his place, Jack and his partner and gone in and stolen everything. Settenstein, who owed money to shylocks, had to leave town and get a new trade. Years later he returned to town as a bookkeeper. He credits Jack with forcing him to quit crime. Scudder asks him how Jack go the name High Low Jack, but Settenstein doesn’t know.
Crosby Hart is the next guy checked off the list. His real name is Harold Crosby Hart and he works on Wall Street. He used to snort a lot of cocaine and Jack once sold him some, but when Crosby got home he discovered it wasn’t cocaine but harmless powder. When Jack met with him and tried making amends, Hal told him it was no problem. He’d moved onto alcohol and didn’t miss the coke at all.
Frankie Dukes turns out to be a Hungarian butcher named Francis Paul Dukacs. Jack had held up Dukacs butcher shop and the cash register drawer jammed just as Dukacs was trying to give Jack all his money. Jack assumed he was lying and beat him almost to death. Then he tried the cash register himself and couldn’t get it open. He left without a penny and almost killed a man in the process. Dukacs spent years in recovery, with recurring nightmares that left him sleepless and made life hell. He shook, he jumped at certain sounds, and he’d lost several teeth that Jack had beaten right out of his head. After Jack had spoken with Dukacs, he’d gone back to his sponsor, Greg, quite shaken and disturbed, realizing for the first time that not all of his wrongs could be fixed and that he’d done irreparable harm to many innocent people. When Scudder shows up to interview Dukacs, he’s relieved that Jack is dead. Maybe now the nightmares will go away. He didn’t kill Jack; he just told him to go away and leave him alone.
The last guy on the list is Robert Williams, and amidst hundreds of Robert Williams’s it doesnt’ look like he’s going to be easy to find. Jack’s notation next to his name is that he slept with his wife and might have gotten her pregnant. Out of the blue a man calls Scudder and meets him at a nearby bar, Scudder’s favorite old bar, Armstrongs. He tells him he brokers in information and heard that Scudder was looking for Robert Williams and his wife Lucille with whom Jack Ellery had an affair. He gives Scudder his card and his name, Vann Steffens, shortened from Evander Steffensen. On the back of the card he writes Robert’s address.
Scudder meets Robert Williams, aka Scooter Williams, a man in his forties who has smoked marijuana every day since he first tried it as a teenager. He has the mentality of an adolescent, thanks to years of marijuana. He also can’t hold a thought for more than half a second. His wife Lucille slept with a lot of guys and often right in front of Scooter. He didn’t care and they eventually divorced. She’d been pregnant twice and both times gotten rid of the child. She wasn’t much for permanence of any kind. Scudder asks Scooter the same question about Jack’s criminal name. What does High Low Jack stand for? Scooter thinks of it and then it disappears in an instant. So he takes Scudder’s phone number.
A large portion of this novel is about Alcoholics Anonymous and the twelve steps. The rest of it is all about New York and how it’s changed over the years. I cared about neither. But there were some very disturbing points made. One was about Flushing, New York and how they had restaurants that served oddities that were very popular, like stir-fried panda, as in the animal. Another was when Scudder was a cop and how cops always robbed the dead. When they arrived on the scene of a crime, they’d search the pockets, purses, and drawers of the victims for cash, jewelry, and valuables that they split among them. On one such occasion, Scudder and his partner took the 18 karat gold earrings from a dead woman and Scudder said he was generous to give both to his partner rather than split up the pair. :0
Scudder learns that the crime for which Jack was most distressed about was a home invasion gone wrong. He’d told Greg that he and his partner had meant to rob a home, found the couple home and killed a drug dealer and his girlfriend. He named a neighborhood known for Hispanic drug dealers and let it go. Greg only half paid attention because he didn’t want to think his friend Jack was capable of such violence.
Jan cancels another date with Scudder and he’s on a big pity party, ignoring his phone and tossing his phone message slips in the garbage, when he gets several phone calls from Mark Settenstein and Greg Stillman. A week later, Settenstein is murdered in what appears to be a mugging. When Scudder hears that, he rushes over to Greg’s apartment, because he was the other person who left messages, and finds him dead, hanged in an apparent suicide. Not one to believe in coincidences, and having caused these two men’s deaths by not answering their phone calls, Scudder tries to figure out what happened to them.
Scooter calls Scudder and tells him he remembered how Jack got his criminal name, High Low Jack. He was high one minute and low the next, as in manic depressive. He could be calm one minute and murderous the next. His partner, on the other hand, was a cool cucumber. His name was Even Steven.
So Scudder goes to Jack’s apartment building and bribes the super to let him into his room. He searches it and finds an envelope taped to the underside of one of the dresser drawers. Inside is his 4th step, a list of people he’d harmed. (And my first thought was, isn’t that the 8th step?) It’s also a detailed confession of how Jack and his partner, someone he called E.S., murdered a CEO and his mistress. Gordon Decker Raines was famous for corporate takeovers and his mistress Marcy Cantwell wanted to be an actress. And the crime sounded more like a murder for hire than an armed robbery gone wrong. He takes this information to Dennis Redmond, but there’s no partner they can find with the initials E.S.
Scudder gets back to his room and it smells like a brewery. On his desk is an open bottle of bourbon. He left his door locked and immediately assumes he’s having some out of body experience, common to alcoholics after years of alcohol damage to their bodies. He closes the door, locks it, and rushes to call his sponsor. His sponsor tells him to get someone to go to the room with him and dispose of the alcohol. So he calls another AA member, Motorcycle Mark. Mark and Scudder notice that someone has poured an entire bottle of bourbon over Scudder’s bed and mattress. So they toss it out the window and drag it to the curb. Then Scudder passes the night clerk a couple hundred dollars and steals a mattress and pillow from one of the other rooms. They toss the alcohol, glass, and bottle, and dump them in the garbage chute. They got to a night meeting and then Scudder comes home, takes a shower, and sits to think.
It takes him awhile and he discusses it with Dennis Redmond the next day, but it all fits. Evander Steffens had changed his name to Evan Steffens. Even Steven. He was as cold and calculating now as he had been twelve years earlier when he murdered the CEO and his mistress and forced Jack to fire a bullet into each of them as well. Jack had gone to him and assured him that he wouldn’t divulge his name. But Evan had to be sure. They didn’t know how many murders he’d committed, but there had to be quite a few because he’d become quite good at it.
Well there isn’t enough evidence to put Steffens away and although the guy isn’t a politician, he’s well connected in Jersey City. If they arrested him, he’d probably walk. So Scudder meets with him and gives him a photocopy of Jack’s 4th step list detailing the crimes E.S. committed. He tells Steffens that there are several copies of that list, along with another detailed account written by Scudder, circulating with cops, etc. and if he should die of any cause (even natural), Steffens will find himself arrested and in prison. It’s a Mexican standoff, so to speak.
Years go by and Steffens never tries killing Scudder. His one shot was trying to get him to drink, but he couldn’t risk those envelopes going public. Eventually he dies from a head-on collision with an abutment, which appears to have been suicide. He was dying of lung cancer and emphysema.
Scudder is a very unlikeable guy in this novel. I hated him. His heart wasn’t in the work and he let two guys get killed because he couldn’t be bothered to pick up a phone. That’s irresponsible.
2 out of 10 stars for a horrible installment in the Scudder series. Block must’ve just phoned it in. Why bother?