KILLER’S PAYOFF (1958) ****
by Ed McBain
This paperback edition published by Penguin, 1987, 160pp
First published in 1958 (USA)
© Ed McBain, 1958
Blurb: He appeared to be a decent, upright, honest citizen….And yet appearances can be more than deceiving in the world of blackmail and extortion. The shocking gangland-style murder of known blackmailer Sy Kramer begs the question: which of Kramer’s marks had given him his very last payoff? A politician’s beautiful wife with a deadly secret? An overly interested ex-con? A wealthy soft-drinks executive? Or the mystery person who had fattened Kramer’s wallet by the thousands? The detectives of the 87th Precinct must break the chain that links the dead man’s associates and single out a killer — before someone else cashes it in.
Comment: This is the sixth of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct books and it is clear that the author has found his rhythm. This is a tight mystery that introduces a wide range of characters as murder suspects – the victim being a dislikeable extortionist. Steve Carella and Cotton Hawes take the lead in the investigation and McBain has fun developing Hawes’ character – making him something of a lothario. The dialogue is as snappy as ever and the investigation moves along in a logical and procedural fashion. However it is instinct that leads to a resolution, demonstrating the need for human proactivity. Another highly enjoyable read in this influential series.
GENESIS – 1975 TO 2021: THE PHIL COLLINS YEARS (2021) ***½
by Mario Giammetti
This paperback edition published by Kingmaker Publishing, 2021, 290pp
© Mario Giammetti, 2021
Blurb: The definitive biography of the later years of one of the world’s greatest bands. The book contains numerous exclusive interviews with band members and all of the important personalities who were part of the story of Genesis from 1975 onwards (including Ray Wilson who fronted the band for 1997’s Calling All Stations album and subsequent tour before the return of Phil Collins in 2007). The book covers the full story of the band extensively, taking readers through each album and tour. Additionally it features a number of previously unpublished photographs.
Comment: This is the follow-up to Mario Giammetti’s Genesis: 1967 to 1975 – The Peter Gabriel Years published the previous year. I was hugely impressed with that first volume, which provided much new information on that period of the band’s history through the author’s interviews with band members and offered well-rounded assessments of the band’s output. That this new book is less successful than its predecessor may not be surprising to those familiar with the author’s love of the Gabriel era of the band. Genesis fans are often split into two camps – those who grew up with or preferred listening to the band’s progressive recordings and those who caught up with the band when they became a trio and started having hits. Whilst Giammetti recognises the strengths of much of the material from the latter period, he does not hide his disdain for certain aspects of the band’s success in the mid-80s. He has a particular dislike of 1986’s Invisible Touch album, which he describes as “the weakest album in the history of Genesis”. He laments that the album was the band at its commercial peak and disliked their use of studio electronics and new musical equipment. Whilst I have some sympathy with his case against synthetic drums (the awful Simmons kits of the day lacked player expression), I challenge his view that the songs on the album were sub-standard – he states “there isn’t a single song that is exceptional”. The album produced five top 5 singles in the US and stayed on the UK album charts for over a year. An album with that much success cannot be written off with the casualness it is here. No-one complains that The Beatles’ pop songs were poor because they were commercial hits, yet with Genesis their later albums are seen as a betrayal by fans who wanted them to carry on producing songs in the way they had done in the 70s. This seeming prejudice aside, Giammetti does acknowledge the band could not sustain itself in a changing musical landscape by clinging to old musical philosophies and accepts the simplification of their sound as a necessity. He is much fairer, and clearer, in his assessment of albums such as Duke and We Can’t Dance. However, it is also obvious the author has personally less to say about the songs from this period in general than he did in his first volume and he leaves most of the words to the band members themselves. A lot of what they say is very interesting and there are again new things to be learned from interviews conducted directly with the author and other sources close to him. The book as a whole is generally a good companion to the earlier volume and is both informative and enlightening through those band interviews. What made the first volume so successful, however, was the marriage of the band’s views with the analysis of the author. Here, though, there is an obvious gap between Giammetti’s view of the material and that of the band. Not a bad thing in itself, but the author’s contrary views are often restricted to a couple of sentences without any real substantive analysis or insight to qualify those sentences. It sounds like I have been harsh on this book because I do not always agree with the author’s view. There is an oft-quoted saying that “opinions are like a**holes – everybody has one.” I would also add that everybody is entitled to one – an opinion that is. I would just like to see those views better expressed and rationalised. In its layout, the book follows the same template as the first volume and the sections covering the tours and the evolving set lists are well laid out. There is also exploration of the music scene and its trends to contrast with the band’s albums. This is a book then that completes Giammetti’s overview of the band and one that is welcome for that, but perhaps the definitive assessment of the band’s career, and in particular the so-called “Collins era”, is still to be written. (Note: Despite the title, Giammetti also covers Ray Wilson’s brief tenure with the band following Collins’ departure in 1996).
18 September 2021 is the 40th anniversary of the release of Genesis’ watershed album Abacab. It was the band’s eleventh studio album and their third as a trio The album saw Genesis deliberately steer themselves into a post-new wave direction by rejecting any material they wrote which they felt was treading old ground or adopting what they considered to be group clichés. Gone were the extended solos, long journey songs and elaborate harmonies and arrangements to be replaced by a stark sonic landscape, shorter and more concise songs and a heightened emphasis on Phil Collins’ drums, building on the sound he created with engineer Hugh Padgham on Peter Gabriel’s third album the year before. Padgham was asked to work on Abacab as engineer to help the band establish a new sound. The album was therefore the band’s most stylistically experimental and challenging since 1974’s The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. I remember buying this album on release and being disappointed after the monumental Duke. Now, I can look back on the album and enjoy for its very willingness to surprise and the band’s determination to progress and adapt their approach to songwriting.
The album opener ‘Abacab’ signals the new direction with its raw energy and Collins’ abrasive vocal. The closing jam was indeed an unedited session that relies on spontaneity and eschews composition. ‘No Reply at All’ is a funky song supported by the Earth, Wind and Fire horn section who had worked on Collins’ solo album Face Value, released as the band were writing Abacab. ‘Me and Sarah Jane’ has a more traditional Genesis feel in its two-part structure, but delves into new influences of reggae. ‘Keep it Dark’ motors along on a repeated guitar riff with Banks holding back on synth harmonies until the chorus. ‘Dodo/Lurker’ is the standout track on the album and blends old and new Genesis perfectly with dramatic sweeps and quirky synth lines. ‘Who Dunnit?’ stirred strong emotions amongst old-school fans for its punkish and tuneless approach and can wear a bit thin after repeated listens. ‘Man on the Corner’ was a wistful Collins written song that relied on its sparse arrangement and drum machine pattern for its atmosphere and maybe a little too close to his ‘In the Air Tonight’ in execution. ‘Like it or Not’ is a plodding Rutherford ballad and ‘Another Record’ tails away after a splendidly atmospheric opening. The songs then were a mixed bag, which could perhaps be expected with the band members eager to experiment. The band indeed had sufficient material for a double album and I think that would have been a way to go to fully appreciate the breadth of material Genesis explored in the sessions. Of the tracks excluded from the album the poppy ‘Paperlate’ and romantic ‘You Might Recall’ were unlucky not to make the cut. ‘Naminanu’ and ‘Submarine’ are interesting instrumentals that were initially considered for a longer suite to be based around ‘Dodo/Lurker’. ‘Me and Virgil’ is the weakest song from the sessions – an unsuccessful attempt to emulate The Band’s western rock formula and containing one of Collins’ weakest lyrical contributions. Abacab is not the band’s best album, but it is perhaps their bravest and forty years on it stands up as a key moment in Genesis history.
ABACAB (Charisma, 18 September 1981) – Album Score – 72%
Tony Banks – keyboards
Phil Collins – drums, vocals
Mike Rutherford – guitars, basses
EWF Horns – horns on ‘No Reply at All’ (and ‘Paperlate’)
Thomas “Tom Tom 84” Washington – horn arrangement on ‘No Reply at All’ (and ‘Paperlate’)
Produced by Genesis
Engineered by Hugh Padgham
Recorded at The Farm, Surrey, March–June 1981
2006 remix by Nick Davis assisted by Tom Mitchell and Geoff Callingham
Album Cover by Bill Smith
Sleeve adaptation by Chris Payton for The Redroom
1. Abacab (Banks/Collins/Rutherford) (6:57) **** (A-side single 17/8/81)
2. No Reply at All (Banks/Collins/Rutherford) (4:33) ***
3. Me and Sarah Jane (Banks) (6:02) ****
4. Keep it Dark (Banks/Collins/Rutherford) (4:32) **** (A-side single 26/10/81)
5. Dodo/Lurker (Banks/Collins/Rutherford) (7:31) *****
6. Who Dunnit? (Banks/Collins/Rutherford) (3:24) **
7. Man on the Corner (Collins) (4:27) *** (A-side single 8/3/82)
8. Like it or Not (Rutherford) (4:58) ***
9. Another Record (Banks/Collins/Rutherford) (4:38) *** (B-side to ‘Abacab’)
1. Naminanu (Banks/Collins/Rutherford) (3:54) *** (B-side to ‘Keep it Dark’)
2. Submarine (Banks/Collins/Rutherford) (4:37) *** (B-side to ‘Man on the Corner’)
3. Paperlate (Banks/Collins/Rutherford) (3:25) **** (‘3×3’ EP 17/5/82)
4. You Might Recall (Banks/Collins/Rutherford) (5:35) **** (‘3×3’ EP)
5. Me and Virgil (Banks/Collins/Rutherford) (6:19) ** (‘3×3’ EP)
KILLER’S CHOICE (1958) ****
by Ed McBain
This paperback edition published by Penguin, 1986, 160pp (155pp)
First published in 1958 (USA)
© Ed McBain, 1958
Blurb: Someone killed Annie Boone, but was she an innocent victim or the target of a hit? As Detectives Carella and Kling of the 87th precinct pick up the pieces of her interrupted life, they move relentlessly closer to some answers yet farther from others. Struggling to find the weak link, the detectives find themselves facing a cold, hard truth they’d prefer not to know.
Comment: This is the fifth of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct books and it is the most assured to date. McBain weaves a whodunnit plot around a complex victim and a number of suspects through which the detectives of the 87th are required to navigate their way. The team are led down a number of blind alleys as they discover Annie Boone, the victim of a murder in a liquor store, led different lives according to the men she attracted. Throw in a divorced husband and a custody fight for the couple’s daughter with the victim’s mother and there is plenty to keep the reader interested. McBain is as assured as ever and has his characters feel very real through their interactions and dialogue. The wrap up again feels a little rushed, but once a case breaks the resolution almost takes care of itself.
THE CON MAN (1957) ***½
by Ed McBain
This paperback edition published by Penguin, 1987, 174pp (168pp)
First published in 1957 (USA)
© Ed McBain, 1957
Blurb: A con man is plying his trade on the streets of Isola: conning a domestic for pocket change, businessmen for thousands, and even ladies in exchange for a little bit of love. You can see the world, meet a lot of nice people, imbibe some unique drinks, and make a ton money…all by conning them for their cash. The question is: How far is he willing to go? When a young woman’s body washes up in the Harb River, the answer to that question becomes tragically clear. Now Detective Steve Carella races against time to find him before another con turns deadly. The only clue he has to go on is the mysterious tattoo on the young woman’s hand—but it’s enough. Carella takes to the streets, searching its darkest corners for a man who cons his victims out of their money…and their lives.
Comment: This is the fourth of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct books and it continues with the successful formula established in the trio of 1956 titles. This time there are two independent plots involving confidence tricksters, the latter of which is the meatier of the two and also leads to a serial killer. McBain has nicely honed his easy-going writing style, interlaced with witty dialogue and conversational description. Here again, each plot is resolved in ways impacted by happenstance, demonstrating the detectives’ reliance on luck as well as their skilful use of procedure. Carella’s deaf-mute wife, Teddy becomes involved in the murder plot, which leads to a tense and thrilling climax in which McBain interweaves short scenes involving the protagonists in a way that emulates a tightly-cut movie. This makes for a satisfying conclusion to a book that continues to demonstrate McBain’s exceptional talent whilst, as yet, not reaching the heights the series would go on to achieve.
THE PUSHER (1956) ***½
by Ed McBain
This paperback edition published by Penguin, 1987, 160pp (152pp)
First published by Perma in 1956 (USA)
© Ed McBain, 1956
Blurb: A bitterly cold night offers up a body turned blue—not frozen, but swinging from a rope in a dank basement. The dead teen seems like a clear case of suicide, but Detective Steve Carella and Lieutenant Peter Byrnes find a few facts out of place, and an autopsy confirms their suspicions. The boy hadn’t hung himself but OD’d on heroin before an unknown companion strung him up to hide the true cause of death. The revelation dredges up enough muck to muddy the waters of what should’ve been an open-and-shut case. To find the answers to a life gone off the rails, Carella and Byrnes face a deep slog into the community of users and pushers—but a grim phone calls discloses that very community already has its claws in a cop’s son. A new pusher is staking a claim right under the 87th Precinct’s noses, and it’s up to Carella and Byrnes to snag the viper before it poisons their whole lives.
Comment: The third of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct books is geared around a story that runs close to home for Lt. Pete Byrnes, head of the 87th Precinct’s detective squad, when his son is implicated in the murder of a drug pusher. By introducing a case with personal investment McBain gets to explore further the detective characters he has created. Byrne’s family life is fleshed out and we see more of the relationship he has with his squad – notably Detective Steve Carella, who is officially working on the case and is taken into Byrne’s trust. The book is full of McBain’s writing flourishes with snappy dialogue and his trademark prose. The plot is linear and follows the logical progression of the investigation without the need to resort to contrivances. Another solid book in the series.