Since I’m on something of an Ed McBain kick, I thought I’d read the single McBain reprint Hard Case Crime did, right before his death: The Gutter and the Grave. It was first published as I’m Cannon—For Hire by Curt Cannon; there were a half-dozen Cannon stories, collected in one volume, and this single Cannon novel. But he wasn’t always named Cannon. McBain originally named the character Matt Cordell, renamed him to Curt Cannon for book publication (thanks to pressure from Fawcett/Gold Medal editors), and then Hard Case changed it back to the original Cordell. That’s your trivia tidbit for today.
Matt Cordell lost his detective license when he caught his wife in bed with his top agent, and took the handle of his .45 to the guy’s face. Now he’s bumming around New York at the bottom of a bottle. At least, until an acquaintance by the name of Johnny Bridges seeks him out, hoping to get some help looking into some petty thefts at his tailor shop. After talking Cordell into stopping by the shop to look at the locks and cash register, they stumble upon the corpse of Bridges’ business partner—shot with Bridges’ own .38.
Thinking fast, Cordell continues on the case while Bridges is taken into custody. But this case won’t be anywhere close to easy. Cordell’s got to deal with the deceased’s widow, her sister, and the tailor shop’s teenage beatnik assistant, who runs a jazz band. The deeper Cordell digs, the more Cordell realizes he’s being misled. Everyone is lying to him, trapping Cordell in contradictory reports, putting him farther and farther away from the truth. Sooner or later, the police will link him as a possible suspect in the murder, and he has to escape this web of lies before then. Expect plenty of development for a taut, compelling read.
I should note that the book feels somewhat realistic; Cordell takes a bad beating about halfway through, and is stuck with his arm in a cast. (His savior was a Puerto Rican cop, which I thought was fascinating; McBain, as a New Yorker, had a habit of promoting racial tolerance through his characters.) Cordell manages to take names through his Judo training. But I thought it was nice to see the protagonist take such hard knocks, since too many mystery/thriller protagonists suddenly gain special forces-level of martial arts and marksmanship qualities in the course of their novels. Also nice is how open Cordell is about the tears he shed over losing his wife, his job, everything—a contradiction to any other hardboiled P.I. Of course, he’s also the typical broken detective: alone, isolated, embittered, and drunk. And said drunkenness never affects his judgment.
The gritty “broken detective/protagonist at the bottom of a bottle” trope was already old when this novel was written; it’s a trope that works great with refreshing uniqueness. Losers Live Longer gave its sad-sack detective a razor-sharp sense of wit, Say It With Bullets made its protagonist a vengeful civilian who had cowardice to overcome. Gutter and the Grave just feels like same old, same old on that front; there’s nothing especially unique about Cordell to make the book jump out at me. While you can sympathize with Cordell for having lost so much, you can do the same for many other characters.
I do have a soft spot for first-person detective stories, and this one fits the bill to a tee. But as a first-person piece, I don’t think it allowed McBain to use the same strengths he brought to the 87th Precinct books—a large cast of developed characters, omniscient narration, and evocative imagery. Also, I’m leery of its conclusion: this is one of those books whose ending feels rushed, like the author needed to finish the novel and so the protagonist stumbles over some trivial details to pinpoint the culprits. I’m not convinced Cordell made the realizations that lead to him picking out the suspect, since it’s done with such rude abruptness. The culprit is also pretty easy to pick if you’re familiar with how these things work.
The novel is gritty and dark, though it only scratches the surface of bleak; I’m still struck by the power of David Goodis. Cordell’s first-person PoV is cynical and jaded, hard-ass hardboiled: you get to understand how much he loved his wife, and how bitter he is now that he’s lost her. McBain keeps his broken detective in the gutter for the entire novel—at least he’s out of the grave (har). Though I wish Cordell could start heading for the light at the end. (Of course, I’ve probably said before that authors shouldn’t conform to tradition, just to give the character a happy ending, and this is an example to prove otherwise.)
McBain is a strong writer, and it’s nice to see he’s as good at first-person hardboiled detectives as he was for the third-person 87th Precinct police procedurals. The title is fantastic, and the cover, while not the best in the HCC line, is the epitome of noir. It was enjoyable and well-written; a taut, engaging read: the layer upon layer of lies, along with regular end-of-chapter developments, left the book hard to put down. Gutter and the Grave was a good read. But I think the mystery was too by-the-numbers, the ending too forced; it didn’t stand out far enough for me. Maybe I’m too hard to please.