Trail of Cthulhu is Gumshoe!
Trail of Cthulhu uses the Gumshoe engine, and indeed, if properly built, it is not instantly lethal by virtue of the engine - not the game itself. That was a deliberate choice of the Gumshoe designers. While lethality might be increased, it is not part of the main design goals of Gumshoe to offer such a deadly game. As far as I can tell, no Gumshoe game has any weapon that is able to inflict the required damage to get any character to -12 instantly from full health, and as OP found out, even getting to 0 is quite hard in a single attack. That's a quirk of Gumshoe. Combat is not the main goal of a gumshoe game anyway. It's an investigation and mystery game, not a combat simulator.
Trail of Cthulhu is less lethal... compared to Call of Cthulhu
The somewhat lower lethality in part separates it from Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu, which arguably is not just more lethal, but also puts a harder timer on every character:
- Health in Call of Cthulhu can't be regained as easily, and only over longer timeframes. In Trail of Cthulhu, that's quite easier.
- Stability is nigh impossible to be regained in Call of Cthulhu. This is also true for a Purist Trail of Cthulhu game, but Pulp games gives it back to you easier.
Among other things, back in 2008, when it first published, the comparison between the two made by ogrecave was this:
Comparisons to Call of Cthulhu
Many readers will undoubtedly be familiar with Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu RPG, and will be wondering how the two games stack up. First, the ways that the characters are described are somewhat different. There is some overlap in character occupations, but many of the interpersonal skills are different between the games. Also, Trail of Cthulhu has no traditional RPG attribute scores (like "Strength", "Intellect", etc.). Instead, Trail of Cthulhu is focused almost entirely on more specific skills or abilities.
As for the mechanics of the two games, I prefer the GUMSHOE system over Chaosium's "Basic Roleplaying" (BRP) system. GUMSHOE's resource driven mechanics put more power in the hands of the players. Players have a greater control over when during the investigation their characters will stand out, and when they'll have to take a back seat to others. That said, GUMSHOE's investigative abilities really end up merely pointing out who gets story credit for various actions. Because core clues are automatically found by any character with an applicable Investigative Ability, in many (but certainly not all) circumstances, a rank of 1 in an Investigative Ability is just as good as 10 ranks of it. Further, since some investigator in the group will usually have at least one rank in each core Investigative Ability, which character gets to take credit for finding the core clues of an investigation is typically determined by which character has the highest rating in an applicable Investigative Ability during a given scene. In contrast, in a Call of Cthulhu game, the most clever player may be the one that thinks up the way to find the major clues in a given mystery, and his character may get the credit for the find.
If you play the d20 version of Call of Cthulhu, expect Trail to be a lighter game with fewer specifically quantified feats to detail your character's capabilities in combat.
While I prefer GUMSHOE's core mechanics, Chaosium has an absolutely fantastic wealth of source materials for Call of Cthulhu. Undoubtedly many people who buy Pelgrane's Trail of Cthulhu will be Call of Cthulhu fans, so thankfully, Trail of Cthulhu contains GUMSHOE-to-BRP conversions. This is great for GMs with loads of older Chaosium products on their shelves that prefer GUMSHOE's mechanical structure. However, some of the conversions were onerous enough that I really think Pelgrane Press and Chaosium should get together and create a conversion spreadsheet, and should give fans a limited license to just post stat block conversions between the games on the Pelgrane or Chaosium websites. Otherwise, players may convert their investigative characters using this methodology, but other source material may be too painful for GMs to convert.