The Gutter and the Grave, by Ed McBain

Hard Case Crime has published a few early Ed McBain books, which first appeared in the 1950s under other pseudonyms. McBain is most known for his long series of 87th Precinct police procedurals, but these early standalone titles also have their fans. I found his publishing caper Cut Me In entertaining and the man-on-the-run drama So Nude, So Dead a bit less so, but both were works of a capable genre writer. Hard Case Crime bundled each of those novels with a short piece featuring an alcoholic private investigator named Matt Cordell.

The Gutter and the Grave (1958) also features Cordell, and it is the only full-length Cordell novel that I know of. From the beginning, we are told that he is defined by his alcoholism:

The name is Cordell.

I’m a drunk. I think we’d better get that straight from the beginning. I drink because I want to drink. Sometimes I’m falling-down ossified, and sometimes I’m rosy-glow happy, and sometimes I’m cold sober–but not very often. I’m usually drunk, and I live where being drunk isn’t a sin, though it’s sometimes a crime when the police go on a purity drive. I live on New York’s Bowery.

gutter_grave

Richard B. Farrell cover for Hard Case Crime. hardcasecrime.com

Cordell is met by an old acquaintance of his, back from his years in decent society. This man, Johnny Bridges, is a local tailor with an attractive wife and another classmate as a business partner. This partner, Dom Archese, has been a great help to Bridges and the business, helping the shop grow profitably. However, cash has lately gone missing from the till, and Bridges wants Cordell’s help investigating the matter.

Cordell is actually a former private eye, since his license got taken away after a well-publicized incident ruined his reputation. He came home one night and found his wife in the arms of another man, and he then beat the intruder over the head with the butt end of his handgun. Following the trial and divorce, he found himself drinking constantly, and eventually homeless.

Cordell’s notoriety has followed him, keeping him out of work and making his face recognizable whenever he meets another character. I found this rather unrealistic, given how news stories fade in the public memory over time. Maybe in the 1950s people had better memory of local events, having absorbed them through reading the newspaper. It’s also interesting how quickly his backstory gets brought up, and disposed of. Here, Cordell pays a visit to Dom’s wife Christine:

[Cordell, asking about Johnny] “Did he say where he was going when he left?”

“Yes. To look up a friend who’d been a private …” She stopped and sudden recognition crossed her face. “Did you say your name was Matt Cordell?”

“Yes.”

“Oh. Oh sure. Well, he…” She studied my face more closely. “Of course. I should have remembered. Your picture was all over the papers when it happened.” She nodded. “Still not over it, huh?”

“Let’s drop it,” I said.

“Sure. Did Johnny find you?”

The alcoholism, bad appearance from living in a flophouse and reputation for violence are mentioned but never woven into the events of the novel. One reason why I read so many of Lawrence Block’s Scudder series was the use of alcoholism as an unpredictable, complex influence on the featured character. In TGatG, it just doesn’t seem to ever mesh, especially when Cordell so easily gains the confidence of multiple women.

I haven’t researched this, but I suspect this issue may have come from the fact that the Gold Medal title for this book was I’m Cannon–For Hire, with the author being “Curt Cannon.” Did a fairly generic private eye named Cannon get substituted by Cordell, who had already been featured in detective magazines?

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Gold Medal edition. coverbrowser.com

Anyway, the main story begins when Cordell reluctantly agrees to check out the tailor shop with Bridges, only to find Dom Archese’s body in the back room. He’s been shot, presumably with the weapon they kept hidden in the store (which is now missing, of course). Archese also apparently scrawled “J. B.” in chalk before he expired, a scene landing Bridges in jail and Cordell left alone to find the real killer.

McBain follows this setup with a pretty standard private eye story, wherein Cordell interacts with various characters, including Christine, her sister, the young apprentice living in The Village, and a couple of no-nonsense policemen. The police tend to come off looking the best in this novel, even allowing for Cordell’s bitterness towards them for taking away his gun and license.

In my favorite moment of the book, Cordell is hauled into the police station and questioned by a detective Miskler and company:

“What do you know about Johnny Bridges?” Miskler asked.

“Johnny Bridges,” I said, as if trying to recall the name. “I don’t think I know him.”

“No?”

“No. Oh wait a minute. Bridges, sure. I knew him when I was a kid.”

Imperceptibly, the bulls were forming a circle around my chair. Miskler came from behind his desk and walked over to take the quarterback position, and the other bulls crowded in waiting for him to call the play. I wasn’t on the team, but some of that old spirit was beginning to spread into my bones. I wondered if this were just going to be a verbal battering ram or whether we’d try for a run around end with rubber hoses. . . .I don’t know if you’ve ever been questioned by four guys hurling questions in rapid-fire longhand. It can knock you on your ass, believe me, as sure as a punch can.

So, the rubber hoses do not make an appearance. Cordell is confronted with his own deceptions, and eventually coughs up the truth. However, he manages to bargain for his freedom with them, as their best hope for cracking the murder case. He uses the fact that he already has the confidence of Bridges and Archese’s widow, boasting a bit but not questioning the competence of the individual policemen.

Before he died, Dom Archese had hired another private investigator — an active professional named Knowles — while claiming to also be Johnny Bridges. This leads Cordell to Knowles’ office, which is inconvenient since Cordell once broke Knowles’ nose over a verbal insult that escalated. In contrast to the mostly rational police detectives, the violence continues its cycle in the rivalry between Knowles and Cordell.

The difference between the relative honesty of the police detectives and the deceitfulness of everyone else, including Cordell’s former professional colleague, is the most interesting aspect of TGatG. The story works as a procedural, but less so in depicting how alcoholism effects the life of someone as tough and competent as Cordell. In makes for a middling HCC volume, and probably my last non-87th McBain title for a while. 5/10.

 

About pete

former academic scientist and presently a software engineer. Also, a science fiction and crime fiction book-blogger.
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1 Response to The Gutter and the Grave, by Ed McBain

  1. fredfitch says:

    Evan Hunter was a big influence on both Block and Westlake–a mentor, you might say. It would be reasonable to assume they both read him avidly, and would jump at the chance to try and improve on something he did. Neither was much interested in poaching on his primary turf, the 87th Precinct, but the private detective was something he didn’t do as well, and they both saw opportunities there. He was very prolific, and wrote fast (according to Block, he usually had a busy complicated sex life, and those tend to run up the bills).

    I’ve read about Cordell, but never came across any of his stories. From your synopsis, I get the idea that point is not alcoholism so much as post traumatic stress, that he alleviates with drinking. Which matches up nicely with Scudder.

    The PI genre began with tough cool competent guys who maybe had problems, secret sorrows, but had their heads screwed on straight. Where do you go from there? Maybe unscrew the head. Bob Wade and Bill Miller came up with Max Thursday, a San Diego eye, whose life fell apart because of alcohol, but he also developed a reputation for being trigger happy. He’s kind of a mess, personally speaking. The series is interesting, but a bit too inconsistent in execution. But once the idea is out there, others will take a whack at it.

    What McBain adds is the notion that this guy isn’t even a real PI anymore. He just keeps getting dragged back into it, while he’s living on the skids, trying to drown his sorrows. Thursday’s drinking problem goes away quickly after the first book, even though he remains haunted by his proclivity for violence. McBain would have seen room for improvement there too. But sounds like McBain never really licked the problem of how to write this type of PTS character either.

    Scudder is probably the most famous instance of this scenario being worked out in detail, but the best, for my money, is Westlake’s Mitch Tobin mysteries. Tobin isn’t a drinker, and he doesn’t live in some derelict ridden hotel. He lives with his wife and son, and builds a brick wall in his backyard. He was having an affair with the wife of a man he’d put away, and his partner was covering for him, went alone to arrest someone, got killed. It all came out in the papers, Tobin got busted off the force, and he came within an inch of killing himself. He’s not a drunk, because alcohol is a depressant, and he’s already depressed. That’s the hook–a clinically depressed detective.

    Tobin came well before Scudder, and like Scudder, he isn’t a licensed PI. He doesn’t really want to work at all, except on his wall. But cases keep coming his way, sometimes for money, sometimes just to help someone (his wife Kate insists, and he’s in a poor position to say no to her). He gradually comes out of his emotional coma, and that’s where Westlake figured it was time to stop writing about him.

    Block made more of a formula out of it, which worked better commercially, but creatively? I think the Tobins are among the best books Westlake ever wrote, and maybe the best PI novels I’ve ever read. And I’ve read pretty much all of Hammett.

    But I’m always on the lookout for Westlake’s influences, and I think this is probably one of them. Have to check it out sometime.

    Like

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