Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Gutter and the Grave by Ed McBain (originally published as I'm Cannon -- For Hire by Curt Cannon) (Hard Case Crime)

Since September 2009 marks the fifth anniversary of Hard Case Crime, I will be reprinting my reviews of the first 40 books from my old (and now mostly defunct) Craig's Book Club site — 2 for the first 10 days, and 1 a day for the next 20. I hope you enjoy this refresher course in the variety of crime fiction that this fascinating publisher has to offer.

Ever since he found his wife Toni with one of his operatives, all former private investigator Matt Cordell has wanted to do is crawl inside a bottle and stay there. He's been perfectly happy to wallow in his memories for the last five years, panhandling for change on the Bowery, and he doesn't want any trouble.

Enter trouble in the form of Johnny Bridges, a guy from Cordell's old neighborhood he hasn't seen in ten years. Johnny can't afford a real private detective — and he doesn't want to get the police involved for personal reasons — so he asks Matt for his help in figuring out whether his business partner, Dom Archese, is stealing from the till in their co-owned tailor shop.

Being that Cordell doesn't have a whole hell of a lot else filling his day, he says yes. This little piece of magnanimity (really just a way to get Johnny off his back) sweeps Matt into a full-fledged murder case where he encounters a shady cast of characters so full of lies that it is impossible to tell if anyone is ever telling the truth. (Not that it stops Cordell from climbing into the sack with as many of the potential femmes fatales as will let him.)

That's what you get for doing a guy a favor.

The Gutter and the Grave is a reprint of a novel originally published by Gold Medal under the title I'm Cannon — For Hire and the byline of "Curt Cannon" (the name the Cordell's character was changed to). This edition is Ed McBain's preferred text, complete with edits made just prior to his death. It is therefore a fascinating combination of the enthusiasm of a young writer (it is a little heavy on the exposition) and the restraint exercised by a seasoned pro (the violence is tight and visceral and not drawn out unnecessarily).

The Gutter and the Grave is a prime example of the fiction called noir: it's dark and it's dirty, and Matt Cordell is one depressing son of a bitch of a hero. He's full of self-pity and the smallest things set him off on a flashback.

McBain keeps his prose raw and fluid, his dialogue sizzling, and a happy ending never crosses his mind — though there is a fun Blackboard Jungle reference for those who can appreciate it (that novel was published under McBain's legal name, Evan Hunter). The Gutter and the Grave is a novel about the other side of society: the side where every day is a struggle and every relationship is just one more opportunity to take advantage of. It's the kind of potent novel that, after you get over the grungy feeling it leaves behind, makes you feel happy that you're not one of the characters — a perfect addition to the Hard Case Crime canon.

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