A walk on the wild side: the hard-boiled world of Lawrence Block
A Drop of the Hard Stuff. Lawrence Block; $16.50 paper 978-0-316-12731-8, 340 pp., Mulholland Books
Getting Off. Lawrence Block; $17.95 paper 978-0-85768-582-7, 336 pp., Hard Case Crime
In any survey of American hard-boiled crime fiction, certain names naturally stand out. Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, of course. James M. Cain. Jim Thompson. James Ellroy. Lawrence Block does not have quite the same literary cachet, although as a craftsperson, he can write circles around most of the hacks in the business. But for my money, Block’s series of novels featuring former New York City cop, unlicensed private investigator, and recovering alcoholic Matthew Scudder are among the best – and most consistently strong – in the genre. They are undeniably dark books – they make the NYC of Law & Order look like a playground – and tinged with a plaintive melancholy that gets more and more pronounced as the series progresses.
And these are inescapably series novels: they are best read in order, and as a piece. Characters recur, disappear and reappear over the course of several books, and the shadow of Scudder’s memory grows longer and more nuanced with each successive entry.
That said, Block’s latest Scudder mystery, 2011’s A Drop of the Hard Stuff, is something of an outlier, in that it operates more as a standalone than certain other series installments and, although it is chronological in order, it flashes back to an earlier period in Scudder’s life, just after he quit drinking.
To effect this, Block employs a framing strategy that opens with the now long-sober Scudder sitting in a bar chatting with his friend (and series regular) Mick Ballou. (Though Scudder is sober, the milieu in which he operates is saturated with booze; he still frequents his old stomping grounds to meet contacts and glean information, although he restricts his intake to club soda and coffee.) Their discussion turns reflective, and Scudder begins to reminisce about a kid he knew in school, Jack Ellery. Scudder and Ellery had grown up together in the Bronx, but their paths diverged in later years, the former becoming an NYC cop and the latter turning to a life of petty crime. The first of four times Scudder encounters Ellery as an adult is behind a one-way mirror; Ellery has been arrested for robbery and put in a line-up, but the cops are forced to let him go when the witness flubs the ID. The last time Scudder sees Ellery, his erstwhile schoolmate is on a slab in the morgue.
Scudder had run into Ellery at an AA meeting, after which Ellery had confided that he was having difficulty with the program’s ninth step, making amends to those he had wronged. As a not-terribly-successful career criminal, Ellery had run afoul of numerous people, at least one of whom still held a grudge: the third time Scudder and Ellery encounter each other, the latter’s face has been beaten to a pulp.
After Ellery’s death, his sponsor, Greg Stillman, approaches Scudder and asks for help. Stillman is a self-confessed “Step Nazi” – a sponsor who demands rigid adherence to the steps toward recovery – and is wracked with guilt over the thought that Ellery was killed while trying to make amends to someone in his past. The list Ellery compiled of the people he had wronged (in accordance with Step Eight of the twelve) has five names on it: these become the five principal suspects in his demise.
Scudder’s investigation takes him on a tour of some of the seedier sections of New York, and the flashback method of storytelling allows Block to draw contrasts between the city as it was in the 1980s and the way it is now. (One of the great joys of the Matthew Scudder books is watching the city grow and evolve alongside the protagonist. Hell’s Kitchen becomes Clinton, but the name change doesn’t prove to be the prophylactic against crime city planners might have hoped for.) The part of New York that Scudder frequents – its decrepit church basements and dive bars, its walk-ups and cop shops – has always been as much of a character as any of the humans in Block’s novels; the author and his detective inhabit a locale that lives and breathes and seethes and changes. The Scudder novels may not be approved by the New York City tourist board, but they provide a provocative and uneasy glimpse into the dark side of the city that never sleeps.
One of the dangers of the series has always been that Scudder’s sobriety teeters on the edge of becoming formulaic, and there are moments in A Drop of the Hard Stuff when the narrative tilts over that edge. Writers as diverse as Nick Tosches and James Frey have pointed out that by insisting on attendance at a minimum of one meeting per day in the first year sober, encouraging recovering alcoholics to admit powerlessness over their disease and devote themselves to the program in perpetuity, AA merely replaces one addiction with another. And like any addiction, on one level, the repetition of meetings, confessions, handing out chips, and reflection about the difficulties of staying sober can become somewhat monotonous. A Drop of the Hard Stuff takes place toward the end of Scudder’s first year without drink, and Block does a good job of dramatizing the temptations to stray from the path of sobriety, and the dangers involved in giving in. But over the course of more than 300 pages, the endless cycle of meetings does become a bit wearisome.
Block is a staggeringly prolific author who has been writing the Scudder series since 1975. In 1994, he was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America. It would be unsurprising if, after all that time and all those books, he didn’t begin to repeat himself, even occasionally. Despite A Drop of the Hard Stuff‘s plot, which takes a spare whodunnit formula and turns it inside out, and an ending that subverts the reader’s expectations quite neatly, there is the sense that much of this territory has been trod in earlier series installments. Newcomers to the series might enjoy the book more as a standalone introduction, though those of us who have missed Scudder are likely glad just to have him back, if not at the very top of his game.
In any event, A Drop of the Hard Stuff stands head and shoulders above Getting Off, the other novel Block published in 2011, this one under Hard Case Crime’s imprint of hard-boiled and pulp thrillers. Written under the pseudonym Jill Emerson and subtitled A Novel of Sex and Violence, Getting Off is deliberately, almost defiantly, in the pulp mode. The book chimes with the Scudder novel in numerous ways, many of them more noticeable if the two are read back-to-back. In both novels, characters use the overly twee phrase “di dah di dah di dah” as a kind of verbal placeholder. And both novels feature a central character checking names off a list.
In this case, the character was born Katherine Anne Tolliver, but has gone by so many different aliases in adulthood she has lost track of them all. Katherine has a pattern when it comes to men: she picks up anonymous strangers in bars, has sex with them, then kills them and moves on, often stealing whatever money her victim has in his wallet. She does this, we come to understand, as a means of expunging the memory of her father, who sexually abused her as a child and adolescent. Five men have managed to walk away from sexual encounters with her; when she realizes the psychic scars this leaves her with, she determines to track them down and finish the job.
If this premise is in any way offensive to a reader’s sensibilities, that reader is advised to give this novel a wide berth. Block plays with the pulp convention of the femme fatale, but pushes it into territory James M. Cain and Jim Thompson could never have dreamt of. There is an instance of phone sex coupled with necrophilia, and one of Katherine’s marks turns out to be a veteran of the Iraq war who was horribly injured by a roadside bomb while on duty. There is something almost commendable about Block’s willingness to push his scenario to its extreme outer reaches, but the sense of discomfort is heightened by the book’s pulp nature: the sensationalism in the novel is an end in itself, which renders the entire enterprise creepy and squirm-inducing at best.
This is particularly true for the sex, which is plentiful and explicit. It is not, however, particularly well handled. Erotica and horror are the two most difficult genres for an author to pull off, because if either is done badly, it becomes unintentionally funny. There is a lot of unintentional laughter in Getting Off, particularly with regard to Katherine’s phone conversations with Rita, a woman she encountered as a landlord during one of her brief stays, and has since developed an attraction to. Their dialogues, which involve everything from mutual masturbation to threesomes to butt plugs to sex with Mormons, are highly self-conscious and absurd, and almost succeed in stopping the book in its tracks.
On one hand, it’s hard not to admire Block’s willingness to wallow in the depths of the pulp mode, to begin with the tropes and conventions of the lurid paperbacks that used to be stocked on wire spin-racks in drugstores in the 1940s and ’50s, then to inject them with liberal doses of explicit sex and violence. (Anyone liable to slag Block for trying to cash in on the E.L. James-inspired clamour for all things naughty should note that Block’s novel appeared the year before Fifty Shades of Grey became a publishing phenomenon.) But the book is too bloated and the sex too ill-handled for it to appear as anything more than a minor work in the career of one of America’s best living crime novelists.