This is the latest installment in our scheme to review each and every Hard Case Crime publication, one every week. You can follow along here. Last week was one of the best so far, Lawrence Block's The Girl with the Long Green Heart. The tough task of following Block falls to Ed McBain. Can he handle the pressure?
The Gutter and the Grave (2005) was first published in 1958 as I'm Cannon - For Hire, a Gold Medal paperback written by no other than "Curt Cannon". The rough and tumble Cannon appeared in a few short stories, but was one of McBain's shorter-lived experiments - his handful of appearances falls far short of the 344 books in the 87th Precinct, for example. For the Hard Case Crime edition, the Cannoning was excised entirely: McBain's own name went on the cover and the protagonist was renamed "Matt Cordell". [Side note: I'd love to know why.]
I really like Ed McBain. My handy catalog says that we've got 112 McBain books around the house, which is probably selling my fandom short as I'm sure I haven't tagged every pseudonym. This collection even includes a copy of I'm Cannon - For Hire, I'm proud to say. However, the thing is about McBain, I'd never say I loved him. He is invariably a high-quality reading experience (I'm making him sound like a car), but only extremely rarely does his work go so far as to knock my socks off.
John D. MacDonald, by contrast (198 books - eep!), is of infinitely more variable quality - pig's ear to silk purse and everything in-between. Yet the two share more similarities than just being my two most obsessed-about authors: both MacDonald and McBain had careers that spanned genres and, perhaps more importantly, decades. They both wrote populist fiction that reflected the trends, themes and concerns of the time(s). McBain and MacDonald both specialised, if you'll pardon the apparent contradiction, at being flexible. If they weren't literary chameleons, they were certainly commercial ones.