Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:
ED McBAIN – The Gutter and the Grave. Hard Case Crime #15, paperback, December 2005. First published as I’m Cannon — for Hire, as by Curt Cannon (Gold Medal #814, 1958), with the leading character also named Curt Cannon.
Ed McBain’s The Gutter and the Grave is a quick, entertaining read and quite good, if not overly complicated, murder mystery. It’s also a time capsule of sorts, an enchanting mirror looking backward to late 1950s Manhattan, an age when jazz was king, the Bowery was for bums, and there were down and out and hard drinking private eyes like the book’s protagonist, one washed out thirty-something, Matt Cordell.
Cordell, as the narrator of the work, lets us know early on who he is and what he is. “I’m a drunk. I think we’d better get that straight from the beginning.” (Page 13.) Our “hero” spends his days hanging out around Cooper Union in lower Manhattan. Then one day, a friend—of sorts—from the old neighborhood uptown — way uptown — shows up and wants an investigative favor.
Enter Johnny Bridges who wants Cordell to look into some fishy goings on in the tailor shop he runs with a guy named Dom Archese. Maybe Dom’s fishing from the cash register late at night.
All fine and good, until the duo head uptown only to find Dom Archese dead. Worse still, at least for Bridges, are the initials “JB” scrawled in chalk. Bridges, to no one’s surprise, becomes the chief suspect and ends up in police custody. It’s now up to Cordell to figure out what’s going on and to exonerate his so-called friend, if possible.
Along the way, Cordell meets up with Dom’s wife, Christine (who also ends up dead), Christine’s sister, who is an aspiring musician by the name of Laraine Marsh, a Manhattan cop named Miskler, and sundry other colorful characters including a rival PI and his sultry employee. All the while, Cordell is reminded of his ex-wife, Toni, his one true love who ended up in the arms of another man.
Cordell’s world is not a happy one, but it’s an extraordinarily vivid one. At least that’s how Ed McBain paints it. And what a painting! Reading The Gutter and the Grave transports you to a specific time and a specific place. It’s sometime in the late 1950s and Manhattan’s a crowded, hot city in the summer. The murder and the lies all around Cordell only make it hotter. Recommended.
The Matt Cordell/Curt Cannon short stories (as by Evan Hunter) –
“Die Hard” (January 1953, Manhunt)
“Dead Men Don’t Dream (March 1953, Manhunt)
“Now Die in It” (May 1953, Manhuntt)
“Good and Dead” (July 1953, Manhunt)
“The Death of Me” (September 1953, Manhunt)
“Deadlier Than the Male” (February 1954, Manhunt)
“Return” (July 1954, Manhunt)
“The Beatings” (October 1954, Manhunt)
The first six of the above were collected in I Like ’em Tough, as by Curt Cannon (Gold Medal #743, 1958).