The Lowest Heaven - Launch Party - 13 June
Collections +1

Underground Reading: The Gutter and the Grave by Ed McBain

The Gutter and the GraveThis is the latest installment in our scheme to review each and every Hard Case Crime publication, one every week. You can follow along here. Last week was one of the best so far, Lawrence Block's The Girl with the Long Green Heart. The tough task of following Block falls to Ed McBain. Can he handle the pressure?

The Gutter and the Grave (2005) was first published in 1958 as I'm Cannon - For Hire, a Gold Medal paperback written by no other than "Curt Cannon". The rough and tumble Cannon appeared in a few short stories, but was one of McBain's shorter-lived experiments - his handful of appearances falls far short of the 344 books in the 87th Precinct, for example. For the Hard Case Crime edition, the Cannoning was excised entirely: McBain's own name went on the cover and the protagonist was renamed "Matt Cordell". [Side note: I'd love to know why.]

I really like Ed McBain. My handy catalog says that we've got 112 McBain books around the house, which is probably selling my fandom short as I'm sure I haven't tagged every pseudonym. This collection even includes a copy of I'm Cannon - For Hire, I'm proud to say. However, the thing is about McBain, I'd never say I loved him. He is invariably a high-quality reading experience (I'm making him sound like a car), but only extremely rarely does his work go so far as to knock my socks off.

John D. MacDonald, by contrast (198 books - eep!), is of infinitely more variable quality - pig's ear to silk purse and everything in-between. Yet the two share more similarities than just being my two most obsessed-about authors: both MacDonald and McBain had careers that spanned genres and, perhaps more importantly, decades. They both wrote populist fiction that reflected the trends, themes and concerns of the time(s). McBain and MacDonald both specialised, if you'll pardon the apparent contradiction, at being flexible. If they weren't literary chameleons, they were certainly commercial ones.

Which brings us back to The Gutter and the Grave. Matt Cordell is a down-and-out bum. He drinks, drinks, drinks, weasels money from somewhere, then gets back to drinking. Matt was a successful detective, but then he caught his wife canoodling with another man. He give the man a wallopping and, got a divorce and then got fired. Fortunately, he's kept himself busy with all the drinking.

Into this happy picture strolls Johnny Bridges, one of Matt's old friends (more of an acquaintance, really). Johnny thinks his partner is stealing from him and he doesn't want to shell out for a real detective. It takes a bit of fast-talking, but Matt eventually agrees to do a quick snoop around. A quick snoop turns into a quick problem: Matt and Johnny walk into the shop to find Johnny's partner dead on the floor. With "J.B." next to the body. Oops.

Matt does his best to get uninvolved in a hurry, but Johnny won't let him. In turn for Johnny's silence about Matt being there, Matt'll do a little more snooping - maybe see if he can't find whodunnit.

CannonThings - you'll be surprised to hear - get complicated. Dom and Johnny both have their enemies and their (cough) extremely close friends. Christine, Dom's widow, isn't quite as sad as she could be. Laraine, her younger sister, isn't broken up at all. But then, she's concentrating on her singing career. Everyone seems to be hooking up with everyone else. Even Matt stops pining for his lost wife long enough to get involved with a lady. Other investigators turn up, the police get involved and, by the end, The Gutter and the Grave has more players than your average performance of Shakespeare.

McBain's chameleonic tendencies come out in the book's tone - The Gutter and the Grave has all the grim machismo of 1950s noir. Matt's a rough and ready character: he drinks, scraps and growls at everyone around him. He doesn't give a damn what anyone else thinks and he can back up his (unwanted) opinions with his fists and, er, liver. But someone got the better of him once, and that someone was a lady. A woman emasculated him - brought him crashing down into the gutter. And throughout The Gutter and the Grave, Matt measures his self-worth by how he's faring in the eyes of the opposite sex. A woman wants to fix him, great. A woman respects him, better. A woman 'betrays' him? Back down the slide he goes...

On one hand, we're having an unusual conversation about agency - with a man's hopes, dreams and chances of achieving them completely defined by his relationship with the women in his life. On the other, as no woman comes across as anything but conniving, manipulative, cold-hearted and self-serving, this "agency" argument is probably just over-thinking typical period misogyny.

McBain may have changed his style over the years, but one thing that always stayed the same was his talent for creating a good mystery. The Gutter and the Grave is Detection Club-friendly. There are a lot of interesting twists and turns, but Matt's never given access to anything that the reader is not, and the ultimate 'who and why' of it all is surprising, but still fair. Similarly, McBain's ability to juggle a cast of thousands is unmatched in the field. Despite all the characters in The Gutter and the Grave, each has their own motivation and distinct personality. Somehow McBain never gives any one of them short-shrift. This only aids the mysteriousness of it all - with a dozen developed characters, it is tough to second-guess the author: anyone (or ones) could be the killer.

Even if McBain's contribution to the world of hard-drinking, trench-coated, quick-thinking, sarcastic private eye isn't particularly innovative, it is still at the top of its class. McBain doesn't just mimic styles, he masters them, and even when tackling booze-soaked, macho noir, he can't help but write a great mystery. Ed McBain has yet to disappoint me [although John Abbott sure has], and The Gutter and the Grave is an excellent addition to the Hard Case Crime series.  


There's more about "Curt Cannon" and his publication history over at Vintage Sleaze Paperbacks.