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WordPlay #3: The Gutter & The Grave

I really dig Hard Case Crime. They dig up and reissue undeservedly lost classics of the hard-boiled crime genre, and irregularly they publish something new in the same style. The books are small, cheap, and fun to read. They’re essentially insubstantial and, save a couple notable exceptions, there isn’t a lot going on underneath the surface. These guys were writing for a buck, not a prize. Picking up a stack of these for $5 at Half-Price is kinda what I imagine it might have felt like to pick up a stack for a dollar in 1959.

love these covers

love these covers

Ed McBain’s The Gutter and the Grave is another exhumed classic. It’d previously been published under the pseudonym “Curt Cannon” with  the hilarious title “I’m Cannon–For Hire,” then everybody forgot about it. That’s a shame.

Matt Cordell  is a drunk. He was a PI once, but when he found his wife in bed with another man he lost his temper and his investigator’s license. With his wife and his livelihood gone everything unravelled around him, so now he spends his days panhandling in the park for booze money. An old friend from the neighborhood tracks him down and asks him a small favor: could the ex-detective figure out who’s behind the petty thefts from his shop?

After some hemming and hawing, Cordell agrees to check it out. They step into the back office of his friend’s shop and find the prime suspect dead! With the shop owner’s own initials written in blood! The labrynthine plot that ensues involves jazz musicians,  mistaken identity, awesome rapid-fire interrogations, and lots of booze.

McBain really sells Cordell as a haunted man, and I cared enough about the story to try to wrap my head around the “he’s lying–no she’s lying about him lying–no he’s lying about her lying about him lying” twists.

This has everything you could want in your B-grade pulp, and it does it all remarkably well. It lacks the literary pretensions of a Chandler or the sense of doom of Pelecanos or Cain, but that’s part of the charm. You fly through the pages like a bullet, and the last one hits you right in the chest.


About Justin Jacoby Smith

I’m Justin Jacoby Smith. Some people call me “hoosteen.” I live just outside Washington, DC. I like punk rock & country songs. I’m a data monkey. I Occupy DC, because a better world is possible. I’m a cohost & contributor for Voices of the 99%. I’ve served on the editorial board of the DC Mic Check. I briefly developed digital strategy for The Parley. I write poems. Sometimes I get published. Dig it.

One response to “WordPlay #3: The Gutter & The Grave

  1. Pingback: Quarterly Report « never sleep

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