Saturday, August 18, 2012

Book Review: The Gutter and the Grave by Ed McBain

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:

Hammett 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.

By the 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.

Originally 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.

McBain's 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.


David Cranmer said...

Very addictive, Scott. Yes they are.

Dana King said...

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.