Review: The Gutter and the Grave

The Gutter and the Grave
Ed McBain
Hard Case Crime/Dorchester, December 2005.
Originally published as I’m Cannon – For Hire by Curt Cannon by Hui Corp., 1958.
ISBN 9780843955873
Mass Market

The name is Cordell.

I’m a drunk. I think we’d better get that straight from the beginning. I drink because I want to drink. Sometimes I’m falling-down ossified, and sometimes I’m rosy-glow happy, and sometimes I’m cold sober–but not very often. I’m usually drunk, and I live where being drunk isn’t a sin, though it’s sometimes a crime when the police go on a purity drive.

Matt Cordell is a cuckold, disgraced former private detective, and down-and-out drunk when boyhood friend Johnny Bridges finds him between benders and asks Cordell to look into the disappearance of cash from Bridges’ tailor shop. Before he’s even begun, Cordell discovers Bridges’ partner dead from two gunshot wounds to the chest and Bridges fingered as the killer. Then he meets Laraine Marsh, the victim’s sister-in-law, and all his past troubles begin to seem like mere inconveniences. With a former P.I. rival baying for his blood and the cops beginning to think he’s the killer, can Cordell cut through a Gordian knot of lies and maybe, just maybe, redeem himself?

Ed McBain is a great author to turn to when I’m craving a good, no-frills detective story. I’ve only read four McBain novels so far, barely scratching the surface of his very extensive oeuvre (and not even touching all those he wrote under Evan Hunter, his legal name), and I’ve yet to be disappointed. The man was  a writing juggernaut. According to Wikipedia, in addition to McBain and Hunter, he also wrote under at least half a dozen other pseudonyms during his 50-year career. He didn’t only write gritty crime fiction either, but also science fiction, scripts (for movies, television, and the stage), and children’s books. What amazes me even more is that, although he did write series at times (most notably the 87th Precinct novels), many of McBain’s books stand on their own. Each, so far as my limited exposure has found, is fresh and original and populated by three-dimensional characters, while still adhering to the conventions of the genre.

The Gutter and the Grave was originally published in the late 1950s, an era when noir was popular in fiction and on screen. The Gutter and the Grave has all the atmosphere of classic hard-boiled crime fiction but without the verbal tics that distinguish some of the more notable purveyors of that genre (Raymond Chandler, I’m looking at you). That’s not a complaint. The Gutter and the Grave is about as boiled-down and bare-bones as a book can get and not be a Reader’s Digest condensed version. The style is a reflection of Matt Cordell’s spirit, beaten down and tarnished but with a hint of élan lurking beneath the surface.

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