I love Ed McBain. For my money, nobody does noir better. McBain is best known for his long-running 87th Precinct series (I’ve read close to a dozen of them, and they’re uniformly excellent if you enjoy police procedurals), but he’s written some wonderful standalone novels as well. One that slipped past me was Hard Case Crime’s reissue of THE GUTTER AND THE GRAVE. The story centers around Matt Cordell, who at one time was a high-profile New York City private detective, but then fell on tough times and lost his license. Instead of searching for missing persons, he spends most of his days in city parks, searching for the bottom of his next bottle of booze.
As Matt sits on a park bench pondering the course of his day, an old friend named Johnny Bridges shows up out of nowhere and asks Matt to help him. Johnny owns a tailoring business and has noticed that his register is light on money when he comes to the shop each morning. Johnny gives Matt all the details about his co-owner as well as employees, then asks Matt if he could come by the store to check the place over and make sure the register, windows, and doors hadn’t been unknowingly compromised. Matt initially declines – both because he can no longer work as an investigator in an official capacity AND his more pressing concern is knocking off his next round of drinks – but after Johnny pleads with him, he decides to help his old friend. What follows is a whodunit filled with fast action and even faster broads (something that has always cracked me up about the older pulps…I’ve never seen women fall all over themselves to get out of their clothes faster than those in an old mystery novel) as Matt Cordell tries to stay alive long enough to figure out the mystery that seeks to finish him off for good.
While I’ve heard some say that McBain never really did much outside of standard noir/police fare, it’s my opinion that his descriptive language is what separates him from his brethren. One of his trademarks is being able to describe the cities of his tales with rich language and personification. The imagery pops off the page in just a few short paragraphs, giving you a sense of exactly what it looks, smells, and sounds like in any given locale. I wish I could remember which 87th precinct novel it was, but it opened with a two-page description about humidity and its effects on the populace. By the time I finished reading the passage, it felt like I should be dripping in sweat and rushing to the nearest air conditioner…that’s how “alive” it all felt. Similar descriptions of NYC are present in THE GUTTER AND THE GRAVE, though not as in-depth as some of the other works I’ve read.
The same can be said about McBain’s devilish wittiness. Perhaps my favorite line of all-time comes from Ed McBain’s THE CON MAN, in which a man and woman are sharing a meal when this passage comes across the page:
…she leaned over and whispered the three most expensive words in the English language.
“I love you.”
And he looked back at her with tender guile and answered with the three cheapest words in the English language.
“I love you.”
I mean, seriously…how awesome is that?! Lines like those are what draw me back to McBain like metal filings to a magnet. THE GUTTER AND THE GRAVE had a couple of those as well. I’m paraphrasing on this one (I listened to the audiobook, so I don’t have the exact text in front of me), but a character with a broken hand and arm said something like “…after all, what is a man supposed to do without his right hand,” which got me laughing.
All of this being said, while I enjoyed THE GUTTER AND THE GRAVE, it didn’t offer much outside of the standard noir tropes – the drunk-and-broken-down detective, some sexy blonde women to distract the protagonist, a couple of murders, and some red herrings to throw the reader off before the finale (although it’s not too hard to see how it will all turn out if you’re a fan of this kind of story). As such, I can only give THE GUTTER AND THE GRAVE a 6 out of 10. If you’re willing to try McBain based on the compliments I paid him up above, try another of his Hard Case Crime standalones entitled SO NUDE, SO DEAD (one of my top-five books of 2015) or jump into the 87th Precinct novels. I’m not saying you won’t have fun with Matt Cordell’s exploits – I certainly did – but I think you can find better if you’re only going to try one McBain.
As an aside, I listened to this story on audiobook. It was read by Richard Ferrone, and I cannot state enough how *fantastic* he did on this one. If you conjure in your mind how someone should sound while reading this kind of story, Ferrone delivered in spades. When I pick out future audiobooks, I’ll be looking for stories read by him so I can experience his brand of reading again. Based on this, I’d actually bump the audio version of THE GUTTER AND THE GRAVE up to a 7 out of 10. He made the story better, which is the biggest compliment I can think of for a narrator.
Until we meet again…