Well before the detective-as-alcoholic-loner became a hardened cliché, before the ranks of fictional sleuthdom began to teem with down-on-their-luck protagonists who carry a bottle in their pocket and a backstory-sized chip on their shoulder, McBain turned out this stand-alone novel about a disgraced private eye who gets a chance at redemption. Not so long ago, Matt Cordell ran his own investigation firm. Then a chain of circumstances (a cheating wife, a spasm of violence, a public scandal) led him to a spot—the little square outside the Cooper Union building, in lower Manhattan—where he panhandles for booze money and watches the world pass him by. One day, a boyhood chum of Cordell’s travels to that spot to ask for his help. The friend, Johnny Bridges, runs a tailor and dry-cleaning shop uptown, and he suspects his business partner of pilfering cash from the store till. When Cordell and Bridges arrive at the shop to look for signs of petty larceny, however, what they find is a grand case of homicide. The bullet-riddled corpse of the business partner, Dom Archese, lies in a back room, and on a nearby wall someone (Archese, presumably) has scribbled the letters “JB” in chalk. Do those initials accurately name Bridges as the culprit, or do they signal an attempt at misdirection on the part of the real murderer? Cordell isn’t sure one way or the other, but he knows that the police won’t have any doubt of his old friend’s guilt, and he resolves to do some poking around. So it is that, little by little, Cordell breaks free of his Bowery-bum existence. Dissipation, in short, gives way detection.
In the end, a couple of so-so clues are enough to point Cordell toward the killer, and readers are apt to follow them easily to the same destination. But those clues, for McBain, are like the stray musical phrases that a jazz player picks up and runs with; they’re just bits of the raw material that enable him to improvise a sweet-sounding tale. Much of the action here, as it happens, revolves around a jazz combo that includes two suspects in the murder case, and McBain shows as much interest in their milieu as he does in the puzzle of who pumped a few doses of lead into a dry-cleaning proprietor. He lightly mocks but also modestly celebrates the musicians’ beatnik slang. Amid their smoke-wreathed all-night jam sessions, he divines a kind of nobility, a willingness to transcend the Lonely Crowd selfishness that modern life seems to have bred in most of his fellow New Yorkers.
The Gutter and the Grave (originally published as I’m Cannon—for Hire, as by Curt Cannon, and reissued in 2005 under this new title by Hard Case Crime) captures a particular place at a particular point in history. It largely takes place in East Harlem, in or near the neighborhood where McBain (aka Evan Hunter, né Salvatore Lombino) grew up, and he describes the sights and sounds of that area with his usual flair, and with an obvious fondness for the town that he called home—the big city full of small moments that he transfigured into Isola, the fictional setting for his 87th Precinct series. With time-capsule charm, meanwhile, the book documents the winsome blend of liberal sentimentality and jazz existentialism that marked New York culture in the mid- and late 1950s. It’s of a piece with classic works of the period such as West Side Story, The Wrong Man, and The Apartment. Like many such tales, it hits a fair number of bright notes before closing with a downbeat finale.