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.

I liked Cordell immediately. He ought to be the sort of sad sack protagonist that makes my teeth clench, but even when he’s wallowing in booze he’s not wallowing in self-pity to the point where I want to smack him. To borrow a line from Monty Python, he’s not dead yet. He’s able to pull himself out of the bottle enough to help an old friend, and his intelligence (and sense of humor) remains sharp enough that the local homicide detective investigating the case listens to what Cordell has to say. Though Cordell returns to his boozehound ways by the end of the book, I didn’t feel as though he’d just gone full circle; rather, it seems as though Cordell would simply bide his time until the next opportunity to climb out of the gutter came along. The closing lines–

I drank from my jug. It was very hot, and I felt alone.

I felt very alone.

–don’t make me pity Cordell, they make me think he’ll find that loneliness intolerable and try to clean himself up for good. He might not get his wife back, and he might not be able to get his detective’s license back, but he’ll find a way out of the gutter somehow. I have hope for Matt Cordell.

There’s also a timelessness to McBain’s writing that stands out. I’ve read books of his published in the 1950s, 1970s, and 1980s, and none of them have struck me as anachronistic or old-fashioned or era-specific in any way. McBain’s diction, his dialogue, and his imagery make it seem as if The Gutter and the Grave, written over 50 years ago, might easily take place in the present day.

My one complaint about The Gutter and the Grave is one I have about a lot of mystery novels: the sudden resolution, based on an accidental clue. It sometimes reads – as it does here – as if the author realized he or she needed to wrap things up, and so the ending comes in a rush. In the case of The Gutter and the Grave, it doesn’t even feel as though Cordell actually solved the crime, but rather happened to remember some random obscure detail that pinpointed who the killer was. “Oh, by the way…” After the casual, moderately-paced development throughout the rest of the novel – further proof of McBain’s skill as a writer, because there’s almost no extraneous detail, so the slow buildup is more apparent than actual – the abrupt resolution was disappointing.

On the whole, however, I recommend both The Gutter and the Grave for anyone looking for a no-frills mystery, and Ed McBain to any fan of detective fiction.

Reviewed by Laura Taylor, March 2010, on Beyond the Blurb; reprinted here with permission.

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