What Can We Steal From Ed McBain’s The Gutter and the Grave?

Title of Work and its Form: The Gutter and the Grave, novel
Author: Ed McBain
Date of Work: 1958
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The book was originally published as I’m Cannon–For Hire and was credited to Curt Cannon.  Feel free to buy an original copy of the paperback.  The fine people at Hard Case Crime brought the book back into print in 2005.  Why not buy a copy through their Amazon link?

Bonuses:  Here is an interview Mr. McBain did with MysteryNet as Evan Hunter in which he discusses writing for Alfred Hitchcock.  James Grady wrote this appreciation of Mr. McBain for Slate.  Here is an extract from a television program in which Mr. McBain offers his theory as to what happened in the Lizzie Borden case:

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Bridging the Gap Between “Genre” and “Literary”

Discussion:
How can you resist a book when this is the summary you find on the back cover?

Detective Matt Cordell was happily married once, and gainfully employed, and sober. But that was before he caught his wife cheating on him with one of his operatives and took it out on the man with the butt end of a .45.

Now Matt makes his home on the streets of New York and his only companions are the city’s bartenders. But trouble still knows how to find him, and when Johnny Bridges shows up from the old neighborhood, begging for Matt’s help, Cordell finds himself drawn into a case full of beautiful women and bloody murder. It’s just like the old days—only this time, when the beatings come, he may wind up on the receiving end…

See?  Doesn’t that sound like a gripping read?  Cordell is indeed a broken man who finds himself in a pickle.  He’s surrounded by dead bodies, rival pricate dicks who have it out for him and great jazz music.  Does Cordell solve the mystery?  Does he get over his memories of Toni, the woman his broke his heart?  Read the book!  (But remember: it’s noir, so things probably aren’t going to end in rainbows and candy canes.)

Mr. McBain promises you a ripping detective yarn and he doesn’t disappoint.  Anyone writing in this genre is probably going to tick most of these boxes:

  • Close first-person tied to the lead detective
  • Authorities who blame the protagonist and who also may be corrupt
  • Constant use of alcohol
  • Violence
  • A femme fatale
  • Blunt language peppered with cool and cold terminology
  • An ambigious conclusion

The fact that The Gutter and the Grave contains these elements is not a surprise.  Here’s what I did find a little bit surprising: I felt the actual crimes (petty theft and two murders) took a backseat to Matt Cordell’s plight and those of the characters he meets in the book.

Think of Dragnet or Law & Order.  In general, the writers spend very little time on character development.  (There are exceptions, but when you have a very limited run time, you have to focus pretty tightly on introducing the crime, the red herring, the other suspects, the people who know the suspects and then you must offer the reveal of the real criminal.)  Yes, Mr. McBain fulfills all of the requirements necessary to make this a hardboiled crime novel.  But I really enjoyed the way that the author made me care deeply about Cordell.  Toward the end of the book, he devotes several pages to the description of a scene that occurred when Cordell and his ex-wife were happily married.  Does this scene relate to the murders in a strict sense?  Kinda.  But they seemed like a compelling literary departure from the rote nature of an investigation.  (Ask questions…talk to suspect…ask more questions of the original person depending on what the suspect told you…)

What’s the lesson?  Why not steal the conventions of other kinds of literature for our genre work?  Or vice versa?  A frequent (and unfair) knock against science fiction, for example, is that works in that genre are focused more on the speculative science than the characters and their situations.  Great works of science fiction, of course, are perfectly at home alongside “literary” novels.  (Harlan Ellison…Ray Bradbury…Nancy Kress…)

Mr. McBain also avoided falling into the kind of trap that has grabbed me in the past.  Even though the book was published in 1958, Mr. McBain avoids using too many references that would date the book.  (In fact, I can’t even think of one.)  Now, a contemporary reader may have trouble with some of the “pulpy” vocabulary, but that’s his or her problem.  Every book contains cultural references that we may not understand.

What are some examples?  Well, in 1958, most folks might know what Mr. McBain meant if he mentioned From Hell to Texas, a film that had recently been released.  We certainly shouldn’t assume that contemporary readers DON’T know about the film, but most of us might be taken out of the narrative slightly.  In the past, I often found myself making jokes or drawing comparisons based upon contemporary references.  Some of my great teachers advised me to do so judiciously.  And they’re right; how many people today know what Small Wonder is?  Who Melanie Hutsell is?  What Dope Case Pending means?  (It means “obviously the best movie of all time,” but I’m one of the three people on Earth who has seen it.)

What Should We Steal?

  • Blend literary conventions with genre work…and vice versa.  “Hey, you got character-building flashbacks into my pulp crime novel!”  “Oh yeah?  Well, you got blunt, enjoyable dialogue into my literary novel!”  Yum!
  • Avoid making too many contemporary references.  These cultural touchstones may not serve your work in the future in the same manner they do today.

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