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Mick Ballou Looks at the Blank Screen

Blank TVIn the opening pages of A Drop of the Hard Stuff, Scudder mentions that his friend Mick Ballou is married now, to a much younger woman named Kristin Hollander.  Readers may recall Kristin from Hope to Die and All the Flowers Are Dying, but her relationship with Mick may come as news to them.  It was in fact noted in a vignette I wrote a couple of years ago, “Mick Ballou Looks at the Blank Screen,” but that was written for a limited-edition broadside published by Mark Lavendier; it sold out in a hurry.

I expect I’ll tuck it into my next collection of short fiction.  But in the meantime I thought some of y’all might like a look at it:

MICK BALLOU LOOKS AT THE BLANK SCREEN

“At first,” Mick Ballou said, “I thought the same as everyone else in the country.  I thought the fucking cable went out.”

We were at Grogan’s, the Hell’s Kitchen saloon he owns and frequents, and he was talking about the final episode of The Sopranos, which ended abruptly with the screen going blank and staying that way for ten or fifteen seconds.

“And then I thought, well, they couldn’t think of an ending.  But Kristin recalled the time Tony and Bobby were talking of death, and what it would be like, and that you wouldn’t even know it when it happened to you.  So that was the ending, then.  Tony dies, and doesn’t even know it.”

It was late on a weekday night, and the closemouthed bartender had already shooed the last of the customers out of the place and put the chairs up on the tables, where they’d be out of the way when someone else mopped the floor in the morning.  I’d been out late myself, speaking at an AA meeting in Marine Park, then stopping for coffee on the way home.  Elaine met me with a message:  Mick had called, and could I meet him around two?

There was a time when most of our evenings started around that time, with him drinking twelve-year-old Jameson while I kept him company with coffee or Coke or water.  We’d go until dawn, and then he’d drag me down to St. Bernard’s on West 14th Street for the butchers’ mass.  Nowadays our evenings started and ended earlier, and there weren’t enough butchers in the gentrified Meat Market district to fill out a mass, and anyway St. Bernard’s itself had given up the ghost, and was now Our Lady of Guadalupe.

And we were older, Mick and I.  We got tired and went home to bed.

And now he’d summoned me to discuss the ending of a television series.

He said, “What do you think happens?”

“You’re not talking about tv.”

He shook his head.  “Life.  Or the end of it.  Is that what it is?  A blank screen?”

I talked about near death experiences, all of them remarkably similar, with the consciousness hovering in midair and being invited to go to the light, then making the decision to return to the body.  “But there’s not a lot of eyewitness testimony,” I said, “from the ones who go to the light.”

Continue reading “Mick Ballou Looks at the Blank Screen”

The Writing of A Drop of the Hard Stuff

An abbreviated version of the following essay appeared on Amazon’s Kindle Daily blog. We thought our dedicated readers might want a look at Block’s words in full. Enjoy!

I was afraid I might be done writing about Matthew Scudder.

I’d certainly spent enough years in his company.  From 1975’sThe Sins of the Fathers all the way to All the Flowers are Dying in 2005, I’d written sixteen Matthew Scudder novels, along with a handful of short stories.  And, because the fellow has aged in real time throughout the series, he’s now reached and passed the biblical high water mark of three score years and ten.  Even if you’re optimistic enough to argue that 72 is the new 71, the fellow’s still a little old to be leaping tall buildings in a single bound.

Now I should point out that this was not the first time I thought Scudder and I were done with each other.  In the fifth book, Eight Million Ways to Die (1982), the fellow confronted his alcoholism and, not without difficulty, chose sobriety.  That was all well and good for him, but I figured I’d written myself out of a job.  The man had undergone a catharsis, he’d confronted the central problem of his existence, so what was left to say about him?  His d’etre, you might say, had lost its raison, and I’d be well advised to go write about somebody else. Continue reading “The Writing of A Drop of the Hard Stuff”

Searching New York for Matthew and Bernie

cheersThe following article was originally written by Lawrence Block for his Chinese publisher, but it will be of interest to anyone who has ever wondered about the locations mentioned in Block’s books in New York City.

I remember the time some fifteen years ago when I walked into Jimmy  Armstrong’s saloon.  Jimmy  himself  was at the bar, and he told me about a recent visit by a group of visitors from Japan.  It seems they had come to see the place they’d read about in my Matthew Scudder novels, and they spent an hour there, taking pictures of the bar, taking pictures of Jimmy, and taking pictures of each other in the bar and in poses with Jimmy.

“It was fun,” he said. “They were excited to find out that this was a real place.”

I was reminded of this on my recent visit to Beijing, when I met some Chinese fans who are members of a virtual club called Armstrong’s Bar that has meetings online.  It was my sad duty to tell them that the real Armstrong’s Bar no longer existed, and that its owner, my old friend Jimmy  Armstrong, had died in 2002.  (A nephew of Jimmy’s took it over and ran it for a couple of months, but then he sold it to somebody else, and the name was changed, and that was the end of that.)

I know that those Japanese readers who dropped in on Jimmy are not the only tourists who have combined a visit to New York with a search for traces of Matthew Scudder and Bernie Rhodenbarr in the city they call home.  This can be difficult, because some of their locations are hard to find for several reasons.

Some of the places mentioned never existed.  The books are works of fiction, and some of the locations are fictional as well.  A favorite restaurant of Matthew and his wife, Elaine, is one called Paris Green.  Fans sometimes look for it, and I can understand why; I’d eat there myself if I could!  But no such place ever existed in reality.

The same is true for many of the places where Bernie Rhodenbarr hangs out.  His bookstore, Barnegat Books, is fictional, and so is his pal Carolyn’s dog grooming salon, The Poodle Factory.  The two often eat lunch from a neighborhood restaurant that keeps changing its name as different nationalities run it:  Two Guys From Addis Ababa, Two Guys From Bucharest, Two Guys From Phnom Penh, etc.  It sounds like a fine establishment, but don’t look for it.  Or for the Bum Rap, the saloon on Broadway where the two friends meet after work for a drink.  It’s fictional as well.

Continue reading “Searching New York for Matthew and Bernie”

See the Woman

The following story is included in L.A. Noire: The Collected Stories, a collaboration between Rockstar Games and Mulholland Books. Today also marks the publication date of Block’s novel A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF, which Time Magazine says “reads like it’s been jolted by factory-fresh defibrillator pads.”

Red light’s on, so I guess that thing’s recording. This whole project you’ve got, this oral history, I’ll confess I didn’t see the point of it. You running a tape recorder while an old man runs his mouth.

But it stirs things up, doesn’t it? The other day—Wednesday, it must have been—all I did was talk for an hour or two, and then I went home and lay down for a nap and slept for fifteen hours. I’m an old man, I got up every three hours to pee, but then I went back to bed and fell right back asleep again. And dreams! Can’t recall the last time I dreamed so much.

And then I got up, and my memory was coming up with stuff I never thought of in years. Years! All the way back to when I was a boy growing up in Oklahoma. You know, before the dust, before my old man lost the farm and brought us here. Memories of nothing much. Walking down a farm road watching a garter snake wriggling along in a tractor rut. And me, kicking a tin can while I’m walking, just watching the snake, just kicking the can. Del Monte peaches, that’s what the can was. Why’d anybody remember that?

Mostly, though, what I kept going over in my mind was something that happened in my first year on the force. If it’s all the same to you, that’s what I’ll talk about today.

Now, you know I wasn’t but sixteen when the Japs bombed Pearl, and like just about everybody else I was down there the next morning looking to get into it.

They sent me home when I told them my age, so I waited two days and went back, and wouldn’t you know the same sergeant was behind the desk. This time I told him I was eighteen, and either he didn’t remember me from before or he didn’t give a damn, and they took me.

I went through basic and shipped out to England, and from there to North Africa, and what happened was they cut me out of the infantry and made an MP out of me. But I don’t want to get sidetracked here and tell war stories. I came through it fine and wound up back here in Los Angeles, and I’d been military police for better than three years, so after a few months of beer and girls I went down and applied to join the LAPD.

Now, what they would do then, and they probably still do it, is when they were done training you they’d partner you up with an older guy. You were partners, you’d ride around together, take turns driving, all of that, but he’s the guy with the experience, so he’s more or less in charge. He’s showing you the ropes and it’s something you can’t get from a book or in a classroom.

They put me in a car with Lew Hagner. Now, I’d heard of him, because he had a big part in the Zoot Suit Riots in ‘43, and there were plenty of Mexicans who’d have liked to see him dead. And after I was home but before I joined up with the department, there was an incident where he got in a gunfight with three zoot-suiters or pachucos or whatever you want to call ‘em. Mexicans, anyway. He got a scratch, treated and released at Valley General, and they were all dead on arrival. One of them, the wounds were in the back, and the press made some noise about that, but most people wanted to give him a medal.

Lew was fifteen years older’n me, and I was, what, twenty-two at the time? An old twenty-two, the way everybody’s older after a war, but still. Plus my old man died while I was overseas, and a fifteen-year age difference, plus he’s there to show me the ropes; well, I’m not about to say he was like a father to me, but you might say I looked up to him.

Anyway, we’re two guys in a car. And it’s good, and I’m learning things you don’t learn any other way. All the feel of the streets, and what might be trouble and what’s not. What you had to enforce and what you could let slide. When you had to go by the book, when you didn’t even have to open it.

How else are you gonna learn that sort of thing?

Continue reading “See the Woman”

Let’s Get Lost: A Matthew Scudder Story (Part II)

In our ongoing celebration of the publication of A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF, which has been called “the perfect introduction to Scudder’s shadow-strewn world and the pleasures of Block’s crisp yet brooding prose” (Time), “a book right up there with Mr. Block’s best” (Wall Street Journal) and “as rich and rewarding as it is devastating” (Pulp Serenade). To read an interview with the man himself, visit Ransom Notes.  we present part two of a Matthew Scudder short story by the Grandmaster himself. (If you missed Part I, start reading here.)

“There are a couple of problems,” I told them.  “A couple of things that could pop up like a red flag for a responding officer or a medical examiner.”

“Like. . .”

“Like the knife,” I said.  “Phil opened the door and the killer stabbed him once and left, was out the door and down the stairs before the body hit the carpet.”

“Maybe not that fast,” one of them said, “but it was pretty quick.  Before we knew what had happened, certainly.”

“I appreciate that,” I said, “but the thing is it’s an unusual MO.  The killer didn’t take time to make sure his victim was dead, and you can’t take that for granted when you stick a knife in someone.  And he left the knife in the wound.”

“He wouldn’t do that?”

“Well, it might be traced to him.  All he has to do to avoid that chance is take it away with him.  Besides, it’s a weapon. 
Suppose someone comes chasing after him?  He might need that knife again.”

“Maybe he panicked.”

“Maybe he did,” I agreed.  “There’s another thing, and a medical examiner would notice this if a reporting officer didn’t.  The body’s been moved.”

Interesting the way their eyes jumped all over the place.  They looked at each other, they looked at me, they looked at Phil on the floor.

“Blood pools in a  corpse,” I said.  “Lividity’s the word they use for it.  It looks to me as though Phil fell forward andTeeth wound up face downward.  He probably fell against the door as it was closing, and slid down and wound up on his face.  So you couldn’t get the door open, and you needed to, so eventually you moved him.”

Eyes darted.  The host, the one in the blazer, said, “We knew you’d have to come in.”

“Right.”

“And we couldn’t have him lying against the door.”

“Of course not,” I agreed.  “But all of that’s going to be hard to explain.  You didn’t call the cops right away, and you did move the body.  They’ll have some questions for you.”

Continue reading “Let’s Get Lost: A Matthew Scudder Story (Part II)”

Let’s Get Lost: A Matthew Scudder Story (Part I)

J. W. Dant Whiskey BottleIn our ongoing celebration of the publication of A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF, we present a Matthew Scudder short story by the Grandmaster himself.

When the phone call came I was parked in front of the television set in the front room, nursing a glass of bourbon and watching the Yankees.  It’s funny what you remember and what you don’t.  I remember that Thurman Munson had just hit a long foul that missed being a home run by no more than a foot, but I don’t remember who they were playing, or even what kind of a season they had that year.

I remember that the bourbon was J. W. Dant, and that I was drinking it on the rocks, but of course I would remember that.  I always remembered what I was drinking, though I didn’t always remember why.

The boys had stayed up to watch the opening innings with me, but tomorrow was a school day, and Anita took them upstairs and tucked them in while I freshened my drink and sat down again.  The ice was mostly melted by the time Munson hit his long foul, and I was still shaking my head at that when the phone rang.  I let it ring, and Anita answered it and came in to tell me it was for me.  Somebody’s secretary, she said.

I picked up the phone, and a woman’s voice, crisply professional, said, “Mr. Scudder, I’m calling for Mr. Alan Herdig of Herdig and Crowell.”

“I see,” I said, and listened while she elaborated, and estimated just how much time it would take me to get to their offices.  I hung up and made a face.

“You have to go in?”

I nodded.  “It’s about time we had a break in this one,” I said.  “I don’t expect to get much sleep tonight, and I’ve got a court appearance tomorrow morning.”

“I’ll get you a clean shirt.  Sit down.  You’ve got time to finish your drink, don’t you?”

I always had time for that.

Continue reading “Let’s Get Lost: A Matthew Scudder Story (Part I)”

A Master On Top of His Craft: A Review of A Drop of the Hard Stuff

Lawrence Block is one among a very small number of true masters of crime fiction, and A Drop of the Hard Stuff is a delight to readers who really care about seeing the right words on the page.

Ex-cop and detective Matt Scudder, a favorite Block character with fifteen novels worth of cases behind him, has always had a problem with the hard stuff.  As I recall, many years back, in Eight Million Ways to Die, he used to like his whiskey “straight, just the way God made it.”  Now he’s been fighting the urge with mixed success for some time.  He’s in Alcoholics Anonymous, and has been seeing a lady friend named Jan, who is also sober, regularly on Saturday nights and Sunday mornings.  When an acquaintance and AA member named Jack Ellery is murdered, Scudder is the natural one to begin an informal inquiry.

Scudder’s investigation is an elegant piece of plotting.  Victim, witnesses, informants, and suspects are all in the closed world of recovering Manhattan alcoholics.  People’s lives are lived within a geography and a schedule that consists of the Sober Today Group on Second Avenue and Eighty-Seventh Street, the midnight meeting at the Moravian church, Scudder’s regular meeting at St. Paul’s, the Commuters Special near Penn Station, the meeting near Grand Central. Scudder makes his way from lead to lead with the sure expertise of a seasoned cop covering his own turf. Of course he finds his man, but when he does, it doesn’t look easy—it looks like fate constructed by competence and persistence.

A Drop of the Hard Stuff is a wise and fascinating addition to the Matthew Scudder cannon.  It could not be more welcome, nor could it have been written with more understated craftsmanship.  The dialogue sounds exactly like things people say to each other, but it isn’t.  It’s better, quicker, smarter.  Read this book attentively.  It’s much more fun than taking lessons.

Thomas Perry was born in Tonawanda, New York in 1947. He received a B.A. from Cornell University in 1969 and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Rochester in 1974. He has worked as a park maintenance man, factory laborer, commercial fisherman, university administrator and teacher, and a writer and producer of prime time network television shows. He is the author of eighteen novels. He lives in Southern California.

Chapter 2 of A Drop of the Hard Stuff

Continue reading A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF which hits bookstores on May 12th. Missed the Prologue? or Chapter 1? Read them first.

II

WE SAT ACROSS from each other in a booth in a diner on Twenty-third Street. He took his coffee with a lot of cream and sugar. Mine was black. The only thing I ever put in it was bourbon, and I didn’t do that anymore.

He remarked again on my having recognized him, and I said it worked both ways, he’d recognized me. “Well, you said your name,” he said. “When you gave your day count. You’ll be coming up on ninety pretty soon.”

Ninety days is a sort of probationary period. When you’ve been clean and dry for ninety days, you’re allowed to tell your story at a meeting, and to hold various group offices and service positions. And you can stop raising your hand and telling the world how many days you’ve got.

He’d been sober sixteen months. “That year,” he said. “I had a year the last day of September. I never thought I’d make that year.”

“They say it’s tough right before an anniversary.”

“Oh, it wasn’t any more difficult then. But, see, I more or less took it for granted that a year of sobriety was an impossible accomplishment. That nobody stayed sober that long. Now my sponsor’s sober almost six years, and there’s enough people in my home group with ten, fifteen, twenty years, and it’s not like I pegged them as liars. I just thought I was a different kind of animal, and for me it had to be impossible. Did your old man drink?”

“That was the other secret of his success.”

“Mine too. In fact he died of it. It was just a couple of years ago, and what gets me is he died alone. His liver went on him. My ma was gone already, she had cancer, so he was alone in the world, and I couldn’t be at his bedside where I belonged because I was upstate. So he died in a bed all by himself. Man, that’s gonna be one tough amends to make, you know?”

Continue reading “Chapter 2 of A Drop of the Hard Stuff”

Chapter 1 of A Drop of the Hard Stuff

Continue reading A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF which hits bookstores on May 12th. Missed the Prologue? Start reading here.

I

I COULDN’T TELL YOU the first time I saw Jack Ellery, but it would have to have been during the couple of years I spent in the Bronx. We were a class apart at the same grammar school, so I’d have seen him in the halls or outside at recess, or playing stickball or stoopball after school let out. We got to know each other well enough to call each other by our last names, in the curious manner of boys. If you’d asked me then about Jack Ellery, I’d have said he was all right, and I suppose he’d have said the same about me. But that’s as much as either of us would have been likely to say, because that’s as well as we knew each other.

Then my father’s business tailed off and he closed the store and we moved, and I didn’t see Jack Ellery again for more than twenty years. I thought he looked familiar, but I couldn’t place him right away. I don’t know whether he would have recognized me, because he didn’t get to see me. I was looking at him through one-way glass.

This would have been in 1970 or ’71. I’d had my gold shield for a couple of years, and I was a detective assigned to the Sixth Precinct in Greenwich Village when the prewar building on Charles Street still served as the station house. It wasn’t long after that they moved us to new quarters on West Tenth, and some enterprising fellow bought our old house and turned it into a co-op or condo, and tipped his hat to history by calling it Le Gendarme.

Years later, when One Police Plaza went up, they did essentially the same thing with the old police headquarters on Centre Street.

Continue reading “Chapter 1 of A Drop of the Hard Stuff”

Mulholland Books and Rockstar Games

We’re thrilled to announce that we will be publishing, in conjunction with Rockstar Games, a series of short stories some of which are based on characters and cases from the world of L.A. Noire, Rockstar’s forthcoming new video game. “L.A. Noire: The Collected Stories” will be available for digital download on June 6, 2011 through all major eBook retailers.

Authors with stories in the anthology include such renowned writers as Megan Abbott, Lawrence Block, Joe Lansdale, Joyce Carol Oates, Francine Prose, Jonathan Santlofer, Duane Swierczynski and Andrew Vachss. 1940s Hollywood, murder, deception and mystery take center stage as readers reintroduce themselves to characters seen in L.A. Noire. Explore the lives of actresses desperate for the Hollywood spotlight; heroes turned defeated men; and classic Noir villains. Readers will come across not only familiar faces, but familiar cases from the game that take on a new spin to tell the tales of emotionally torn protagonists, depraved schemers and their ill-fated victims.

Read Megan Abbot’s story “The Girl” on Rockstargames.com.

Read the full press release here.

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