ASH & BONE
By John Harvey
Harcourt. 373 pp. $25
THE GUTTER AND THE GRAVE
By Ed McBain
Hard Case. 217 pp. Paperback, $6.99
Consider style. If you want it for your wardrobe, you can buy it, but if you want it for your writing, you'd best be born with it. It's fine to polish and rewrite, but great stylists -- a Hemingway, a Styron, an Updike -- are simply wired differently, think differently, see the world differently from the rest of us. There are, however, other sorts of style, less showy than those writers provide, built on understatement, the graceful phrase, the glittering scrap of dialogue. John Harvey, the award-winning English crime writer, has such a gift. Take this throwaway line from Harvey's new novel, when a character opens a bottle of wine: "The cork came free with a pleasing pop." Simple? Sure. The way Picasso's doodles are simple. The bestseller list is filled with writers who will not in a lifetime produce so sweet a sentence.
A few years ago, after publishing 10 highly praised novels about the Nottingham detective Charlie Resnick, Harvey retired Resnick and moved in new directions. His 2002 novel, "In a True Light," was partly set in New York in the 1950s and featured lovely snapshots of that era's art and jazz scenes. Now, in "Ash & Bone," Harvey is back on native ground. His story is set in and around London and features retired detective Frank Elder. At 56, Elder is divorced, living alone on the Cornish coast, drinking too much and despondent over the kidnapping and rape of his daughter Katherine in a previous novel, "Flesh and Blood." Soon, however, he must go forth to meet two challenges. His ex-wife calls to report that Katherine, now 17, is out of control. Also, a detective Elder knew and liked is murdered, and when the search for her killer stalls, he volunteers to help.
He goes to see his troubled daughter, who will barely speak to him. She says that he wants her the way she was before her ordeal, and he admits it's true. "Dad," she says, "I'm never going to be like I was before." Kathleen's poignant story will get worse before it gets better. Meanwhile, in Elder's search for the cop-killer, we readers say "Aha!" and deduce that Suspect X is the killer, only to have Elder find growing evidence that points to Suspect Y. We are perplexed, and one literate cop complains that the case is so complicated it makes "reading Ulysses like Harry bloody Potter." A monumentally corrupt police official is central to the story, surprises abound, and graceful writing keeps us smiling. "Ash & Bone," like everything I've read of Harvey's, is distinguished by seriousness, sophistication and stylistic elegance.
Ed McBain wrote not so much with style as with attitude -- and superhuman energy. He published around a hundred novels during his lifetime, and since his death five months ago his novel "Fiddlers" has appeared, followed now by "The Gutter and the Grave," a "lost" novel from 1958 that Hard Case Crime has resurrected. Back then, the ever-prolific McBain was starting his 87th Precinct series and writing stories and other novels on the side. He had sold stories to the pulp magazine Manhunt about a private eye named Matt Cordell who nearly killed his wife's lover and wound up an alcoholic living in the Bowery. When McBain dashed off a novel about Cordell, he sold it for a few thousand dollars to a paperback house, where an editor changed Cordell's name to Curt Cannon and published the book as "I'm Cannon -- For Hire," by Curt Cannon. If it occurs to you that Curt Cannon sounds rather like Mike Hammer, you are starting to glimpse the jungle that was the '50s paperback scene.
Under its new name, "The Gutter and the Grave," the novel is well worth having available again. It's written with verve, and its plot -- which involves a murder investigation in which almost no one tells the truth -- is ingenious.
At the same time, the novel is a compendium of '50s paperback cliches. There are hints of Mickey Spillane in the violent scenes, hints of Raymond Chandler in the banter between Cordell and various women, and echoes of "The Maltese Falcon" in the novel's resolution. McBain even worked in a subplot involving jazz musicians, who were in some quarters considered very strange fellows in those days: "How's the throat, thrush?" one cool cat asks his band's girl singer.
Although Cordell is broke and homeless, the ladies can't resist him. I can reliably report that in the '50s, novels like this were avidly consumed by teenage boys who cared nothing at all about plot, character or style, only for what was universally known as "the good parts." In that great noir tradition, McBain treated women as mysterious, exotic creatures, and in particular he lavished attention on their breasts. Thus: "The girl's bosom was high and full beneath the black sweater, a natural softness crowding the wool . . . She was a tall girl with a magnificent bosom . . . Her throat swept sharply to her rising breasts . . ."Ah, life was filled with wonder then. The novel has nothing like the diamond-hard realism that McBain later brought to the 87th Precinct series, but it's readable and fun. If you're a McBain fan, or just nostalgic for the '50s (we had this really good Republican president, although we didn't appreciate him at the time), you could do worse than to climb into McBain's time capsule and glide back to those more innocent days.
McBain's editor says that the ailing writer was editing the novel's proofs right up until his death and that they discussed dozens of titles before McBain picked "The Gutter and the Grave."
He wanted "the gutter" because that was how low Matt Cordell had fallen. And the grave? Perhaps McBain, one of the most tough-minded writers who ever lived, was coolly noting that his own was close at hand.