Scott D. Parker
(I'm on vacation right now -- writing this on Wednesday -- so I present an old review I did a few years ago when I was just starting to learn and read about crime fiction.)
Of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler once wrote this:
gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not
just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with
hand-wrought duelling pistols, curare, and tropical fish. He put these
people down on paper as they are, and he made them talk and think in the
language they customarily used for these purposes.
I always took
that quote to partially explain the move, by mystery and crime fiction,
into the twentieth century. And, by extension, brought it to the
American city. Sure, there is the famous foggy London of Sherlock Holmes
and there is death there, and danger. But what Hammett, Chandler, and
other did was pull a Christopher Columbus on crime fiction: they
discovered a new world and then began to exploit it. Their fiction
teemed with immigrants and thugs, falling over each other in row houses
and tenement apartments of New York or Philly or Boston. It smelled.
People drank. People died...and not always naturally. This is America,
dammit. Get used to it, toughen up, or get out of here.
time Ed McBain began writing fiction, this tradition was decades old.
McBain scanned the landscape, saw what was what, judged the speed of the
moving traffic, and merged right in, going zero to sixty in seconds.
And he never looked back, even when he changed lanes. Everyone else had
to swerve to get out of the way of this fast-moving car whose driver
knew exactly what he wanted and where he wanted to go.
published in 1958 under the title I'm Cannon--For Hire, I read the
republished version from Hard Case Crime entitled The Gutter and the
Grave. A quick check at Thrilling Detective reveals that McBain liked
the new title. The new title is quite apt. The first sentence of the
story finds Matt Cordell basically in the gutter. The last sentence
finds Cordell...well, I don't want to ruin the ending.
prose is, like Hammett's, tough, ornery, and punchy. I use punchy
because there are a few fights in the books, both in flashback and in
the book's present day. And the beating Cordell takes is brutal. It's
brutal by today's standards. I can't imagine the reading public's
reaction back in '58.
I listened to the audiobook version. The
good folks at BBC Audiobook America provided this one and a great
narrator: Richard Ferrone. His voice is gravelly, as if he himself just
got off the booze long enough to read this book. It's a wonderful
presentation. He also read the posthumously-published (by HCC, natch)
novel by Mickey Spillane, Dead Street. I could think of nothing better
than to have Ferrone read any old-school PI/noir book in the library.
I'd check out every one.
This is the first McBain book I have read. I
have his first 87th Precinct, Cop Hater, on my list. This will not be
the last. My next McBain step will be to find the collection Learning to
Kill, McBain's collection of short fiction that, according to him,
helped him become "Ed McBain." I hope there is another Matt Cordell
story in there. If not, I'll have to play Book PI and track them down. I
want to know more about Matt Cordell. And you should, too.
Just don't blame me if it starts an addiction. I warned you.
Very addictive, Scott. Yes they are.
I've read more McBain books than I can remember, and I hope he's coming into a renaissance, as he seems to be a bit of a forgotten man when the greats are discussed.
I'd never heard of this book before I took it out of the library a few weeks ago. Funny coincidence we should stumble onto it at more or less the same time.
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