The great advantage of the Kindle is that it is essentially a very very good bookshop. Think about it. The like of Easons, Dubray, WH Smith, Waterstones et al will never have ‘every book’ you want. Some will be out of print or some out of fashion. Indeed Easons itself can have a limited range even if you are shopping in the O’Connell Street version. Many other shops suffer from a similar fate of bestsellers and new releases only. Anyway, there are enough people staying away from bookshops without me helping, so I’ll say no more about it.
I had been trying to think of what to buy next after reading the very decent James Bond continuation novel Trigger Mortis. I wanted something set in a similar era, only perhaps more hard boiled and maybe from someone I could trust. Cue Ed McBain.
I am not an aficionado of McBain but know that his real name was Evan Hunter and under both titles, he wrote well over one hundred novels, which by any standard is impressive. I am familiar with both his 87th Precinct collection and the Matthew Hope stories. The latter are a series of Florida-based legal dramas that paint a very illuminating and cynical picture of the Sunshine State. The former are police procedurals based in New York that are highly respected for their accuracy of detail and witty wordplay. Both are, in my opinion very hard to put down.
I can’t remember if I actually typed in McBain or whether it came up on my suggested reading tab but I’m delighted to have discovered ‘Cut Me In’. First published in 1955 it is a novel that helped launch McBain into the big leagues of crime writing. Arguably the 87th Precinct might never have seen the light of day without it.
And yet it is very different. The story begins with a dead body, Del Gilbert. This turns out to be a prominent publisher who is found dead in his office by the co-owner of the publishing house. The partner is Joshua Blake, a literary agent who may or may not have a few more scruples than the recently deceased.
What follows is a humourous, stylish and pacy thriller which owes more in style to Dashiell Hammett though certainly has shades of Chandler as well. There are great descriptions of women wearing ordinary clothes in extraordinary ways as well as alcohol soaked regret in every second or third page.
I won’t lie. If you’re a proud feminist who thinks stuff like this should have been left on the shelf sixty years ago I probably won’t convince you otherwise here. The women in the book are all judged on their looks which is a bit desperate. Also, Blake is not a particularly likeable character and often comes across as spiteful and contempt for those lesser than him.
With that said, there’s plenty to like. McBain evokes vivid images of streets and gravel driveways like they were in the last days of Rome. The weather, almost always a key staple of McBain’s stories is almost certainly a supporting cast member here too, this time a mercury-busting heatwave.
The plot plays out well, keeping you guessing as to who the ‘perp’ will eventually be. Blake, unhappy with the quality of police work, becomes a bit of a part-time detective which leads to him discovering new layers of intrigue about his partner’s death. Del’s death does not appear to be an unpopular one but it has certainly inconvenienced Blake as well as jeopardizing his financial future. Turns out the business were relying on Del to agree a television deal with a novelist that would set them all up for life. Hence the name ‘Cut Me In’. The original title (The Proposition) didn’t make as much sense to me though there are a number of said propositions along the way.
If I was to have one criticism it would be the abrupt ending. It’s a bit of an anticlimax and seems rushed. But there’s plenty there for a McBain fan or any hard-boiled fan to like.