Pairs Well With: Gut rot whiskey. The lowest of the bottom shelf sour mash. I’m talking McCormick’s whiskey (if you live in the Heartland), or maybe something more nationally recognized like Old Crow. And don’t bother with a glass. Don’t bother with ice. Don’t bother with niceties. Straight from the bottle is the only way to truly be on the same level—in the same mindset—as the protagonist in this gritty murder mystery.
Genre: Crime Noir
Author: Ed McBain
Rating: 5 Out Of 5 Whiskey Shots
Synopsis: Bowery bum Matt Cordell used to be one of the best PI’s ever to work in the Big Apple. Until a nasty bit of betrayal ended his reign and threw him on a one way trip into alcoholism and homelessness. But when an old acquaintance finds him and asks for help looking into a case of petty theft in his tailoring business, Matt can hardly say no. Especially since it’ll pay for another bottle of booze.
He should have known it was too easy, right off the bat.
Bodies begin popping up wherever he goes, and with a growing list of suspects all intent on lying to save their skin, Cordell may be in over his head in trying to clear an innocent man of murder.
Overall Impression: Truly, this crime noir ruined me. Since reading this story by master storyteller Ed McBain, I’ve sought out other noir stories, eager to delve into the rich atmospheres, the larger than life characters, and the twist endings that prompt you to immediately reread the book. But, thus far, I’ve not read one that reached the same standards, nor hit the same notes as The Gutter and The Grave. From the outset, the mood is masterfully established, the cadence authentic, and the interactions between washed-up private dick Matt Cordell and the various beautiful dames and Irish cops is everything I could have hoped for in a sleek noir novel.
The Cheers: This is an absolute gem.
And honestly, this was my virgin foray into the realm of crime noir fiction. I’ve always been fascinated by the images of grizzled private dicks, snub nose revolver in hand, speaking with a gorgeous, sultry femme fatale who knows just how to play the man’s weaknesses against himself. Maybe it has something to do with growing up with Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, but the genre has always appealed to me.
I’m glad I took a chance and finally grabbed a copy of this book.
Because it absolutely blew me away.
Matt Cordell, as down on his luck as he is, is the kinda PI I like to envision myself being if I were to ever step foot into one of these novels. A no-nonsense guy who’s seen a lot, but says little; who knows how to flirt with the dames and talk shit with the brass who always seem to pop up at the most inopportune times. He’s such an incredibly interesting character, and what’s even more amazing about his characterization is that it isn’t dumped on the reader all at once. The more you read, the more details are siphoned to the reader—a slow drip, like a leaky faucet. It’s a gradual revelation that continually adds a sense of understanding and emphasis behind each of Cordell’s decisions.
The side characters were just as amazing as the MC. No one seemed unnecessary, no one seemed superfluous, and the pacing was exquisite. The twists were well set up, and I can honestly say that every action and reaction was well earned. No character acted outside of their understood motives and this shed light on how too many authors don’t abide by this rule: characters should act within established, believable boundaries, and if they don’t then it creates a sense of disconnect.
All in all, this book is a freaking piece of art.
The Hangover: Not to be one of those guys, but after setting this book aside and giving my brain a few minutes to sift through my impressions and let them congeal, I really have nothing to complain about when it comes to this novel.
It’s that good.
If I were going to be nitpicky, I guess I could throw the ending in this section, but I wouldn’t really mean it. Now, I’m not going to spoil it for you, but the ending goes against other noir novels in that it isn’t the upbeat, “ride into the sunset”, “look at me, I’ve made something of the mess of my life, after all” sort of crap you typically read in pulp-ish novels like these.
No. This ending was heavier, and it leaves you thinking. It weighs on you and you can’t help but wonder if everything was really worth the trouble Cordell went through.
Again, I’m not going to spoil the ending. So, if you’re intrigued, pick up a copy and read it for yourself. And try to tell me this isn’t a unique ending in a writing culture obsessed with “happily ever afters” or “tragic, heroic sacrifices”.
Corking the Bottle: Do yourself a favour and get a copy of The Gutter and The Grave, by Ed McBain. It is one of the best crime noir stories you will ever read; full of drama, dry humour, intrigue, romance, action, and an ending that will leave you conflicted and hurting for more.
***Interested in getting your hands on a copy of this book? Visit the website of Hard Case Crime books to snag yourself a copy. Hard Case Crime is a small publishing operation, busily keeping the crime noir genre alive and respected. With beautiful hand-painted covers gracing each title, you’ll find no shortage of gruff, straight-talking Private I’s, femme fatales, and mind-bending murders. ***
***For a copy of The Gutter and the Grave click here.***
***For the Hard Case Crime website click here.***