Written by Ed McBain — Originally written in 1954 and released under the pseudonym Hunt Collins, this book has been rediscovered and reprinted by Hard Case Crime. The publisher has even roped in the excellent illustrator Robert McGinnis, who painted many a James Bond poster in the 1960s, and who has created an entirely appropriate image of a scantily clad blonde by a swimming pool for the jacket. The presentation would be perfect, but the poolside woman in the story is actually a brunette.
Joshua Blake is the kind of guy who goes out on a school night, drinks far too many whiskey sours, and wakes up with a broad whose name he can’t remember. Normally, he won’t rush to the office but this particular Monday morning he’s expecting some calls. Cam Stewart, author of a Western series called Gunsmoke, is about to sign away film rights and Blake’s literary agency already owns the TV and radio rights. If a movie is produced, there will no doubt be a television spin-off and Blake and his partner will be minted.
Partner? Well, not for long… When Josh Blake arrives at his New York office he finds Del Gilbert on the floor with three extra holes in his head. Blake is thrown off kilter, but not as much as you might expect. He knows that his partner was hated by authors, editors, publishers and just about anyone else with a stake in pulp publishing. The man played hard and made enemies fast. What’s more, he was cheating on his wife Gail with Blake’s secretary Lydia. Both are beautiful, with elegant curves and full bosoms (McBain relishes in telling us) but two wasn’t enough for Gilbert who had more women on the side as well.
So when the police detective Di Luca turns up there isn’t just a body, but motive everywhere. One of the women Gilbert was fooling with? An industry contact he’d double-crossed? Maybe Blake himself – after all, with Gilbert out of the way he might not have to share the proceeds of the Gunsmoke TV rights. Di Luca plays good cop and bad cop. He goads Blake, plays it friendly, then backs him into a corner with his questioning, before eventually telling him to go home. This infuriates Blake, who swears that Di Luca is incompetent, but he goes home and guess who’s waiting for him. None other than Gail Gilbert, drunk and wanting more than a shoulder to cry on…
McBain’s prose is lean and powerful, capturing New York in the middle of a hot summer, without a word wasted. It’s Blake who narrates throughout – a gentleman, a businessman, a bit of a playboy, and a man who likes a drink. With enough valour and vulnerability to win our sympathy, he’s clever, but not the cleverest, as he discovers. Before long, it emerges that the letter in which Cam Stewart signed the TV rights over to Gilbert & Blake is missing – the safe was open when Gilbert was shot – and another angle emerges for Di Luca to contemplate.
“Simple motives,” the cop advises Blake, who begins his own investigation into Gilbert’s murder. He’s not so much an accidental sleuth, as one who wants to make sure those TV rights aren’t nixed by greater forces out there in the entertainment industry. Along the way he’ll be threatened, beaten, shot at and even kidnapped. There are one or two femme fatales in his path, to distract him.
The the plot twists are quite delightful, but the way McBain wraps it all up at the end is truly elegant. No loose ends, no unexplained tangents, and no characters who didn’t have anything significant to contribute to the story. As lean as it is, it feels just as rich as a more detailed book, with all the sights and smells of a post-war New York rising to new levels of affluence, where social and moral attitudes are changing faster than Buick and Cadillac designs. Cut Me In was written before his 87th Precinct novels began in 1956, and is a standalone, but already we can see the expert author at work. It’s a must-read, particularly if you’re an author or if you work in publishing.
Cut Me In is released 15 January. If you like the sound of it, try Kill Me, Darling by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins.
Hard Case Crime
CFL Rating: 5 Stars