20 August 2007

Man of Many Monikers

Ed McBain is really Evan Hunter. Unless you mean Curt Cannon or Richard Marsten or Hunt Collins or Ezra Hannon or John Abbott. Because those guys are Ed McBain--I mean Evan Hunter--too. What a mess. According to Wikipedia, Evan Hunter is really Salvatore Lombino, who was born in 1926 and died in 2005. Whatever he called himself, he was a remarkably prolific and influential writer. I am in the throes of a Hard Case Crime binge, and HCC-015 is The Gutter and the Grave, and it is credited to Ed McBain. Now, it was published in 1958 as I'm Cannon--For Hire, buy Curt Cannon, but the main character in the story (told in first person) is Matt Cordell. Go figure. Despite the psuedonymic psilliness, The Gutter and the Grave is a great read. Hardboiled in the Mickey Spillane tradition, with lots of tough-talking, big-breasted women who fall hard for our anti-hero, and lots of tough-talking, broad-shouldered cops and thugs who lean on him just as hard. This is how it starts:

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 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.

How can you NOT like this book? Funny, painful, sordid, and beautiful, The Gutter and the Grave is filled with this kind of taut, muscular prose. McBain is capable of commenting on life and telling the tale at the same time--a devilishly brilliant feat. There's a bit near the climax, where Matt Cordell finds himself at a West Side jam session where the jazz is really cooking, and he ruminates on music and race, then he meets a singer--gorgeous, naturally--and he ruminates on sex, then he talks about violence with a horn player afterwards. Not much happens for a few pages, but we learn about our man, ourselves, and our world. It is simple stuff, really, honest questions about Life, the Universe and Everything (thanks, DNA), but without any answers. And though the mystery is solved, and the loose ends tied up, our man, Matt Cordell, remains a loose end and a mystery. The bleak coda brings us back to the beginning, as if the maelstrom of blood and treachery and lust and loneliness he was caught in simply dumped him back to where he'd always been. Great stuff.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks; you've mentioned some Ed McBain names I didn't know, and THE GUTTER AND THE GRAVE sounds a real winner. You are correct: how could one not go for Matt Cordell. Keep on reading and opening doors, MOC. Appreciate it. NOC