Book Review – SEE THEM DIE (1960) by Ed McBain

SEE THEM DIE (1960) ***
by Ed McBain
This paperback edition published by Pan, 1987, 160pp
First published in 1960
© Ed McBain, 1960
ISBN: 9780-330-25402-2
Blurb: Kill me if you can – that was Pepe Miranda’s challenge. Murderer, two-bit hero of the street gangs, he was holed up somewhere in the 87th Precinct, making the cops look like fools and cheered on by every neighbourhood punk. It was not a challenge Lieutenant Pete Byrnes and the detectives in the squad room could leave alone. Not in the sticky, July heat of the city with the gangs just waiting to explode into violence . . .
Comment: The thirteenth of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series once more sees McBain trying out a new approach. McBain concentrates less on plot/detection and more on social comment, in this story of a Puerto Rican criminal under siege in his own community from the cops of the 87th Precinct. Alongside this McBain delves into issues of inter-gang warfare and the bravado of youth in the immigrant community alongside and the racial attitudes of the cops (juxtapositioned by the racist slob Andy Parker and the Puerto Rican Frankie Hernandez) and those who live in the community itself. As such the story unfolds in the style of a three-act play. The result is a patchy novel that only comes to life in its nail-biting final act.

 

Book Review – THE HECKLER (1960) by Ed McBain

THE HECKLER (1960) ****
by Ed McBain
This paperback edition published by Penguin, 1987, 176pp
First published in 1960 (USA)
© Ed McBain, 1960
ISBN: 978-0-140-02393-0
Book CoverBlurb: Spring was intoxicating the city air, but the harassing anonymous telephone calls planting seeds of fear around town were no April Fool’s joke. Crank calls and crackpot threats reported to the 87th Precinct by a respected businessman were not exactly top priority for detectives Carella and Meyer — until a brutal homicide hits the papers. Connections are getting made fast and furious, and there’s a buzz in the air about the Deaf Man, a brilliant criminal mastermind. Now, the 87th Precinct is buying time to reveal the voice on the other end of the line — as the level of danger rises from a whisper to a scream….
Comment: The twelfth of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series introduces us to the squad’s recurring nemesis, the Deaf Man. The plot is a convoluted one of distraction and heist planned out and delivered with the utmost attention to detail by the Deaf Man and his cohorts. The detectives of the 87th, are working on what they believe to be the distinct cases of a heckler threatening shop proprietors and a murder. The Deaf Man’s scheme appears to be foolproof as the police are dispatched across the precinct in the aftermath of a wave of bombings and arson distracting them from the gang’s real plans. The plot unfolds in customary McBain fashion showing our detectives to be both human and vulnerable. The dialogue sparkles as ever and the prose has the familiarity of a storyteller at the top of his game. The resolution relies on irony, happenstance and remains open-ended. Another strong entry in the series.

Book Review – BLACK RUN (2021) by D.L. Marshall

BLACK RUN (2021) *****
by D.L. Marshall
This paperback edition published by Canelo, 2021, 392pp
© D.L. Marshall, 2021
ISBN: 978-1-80032-277-6
Blurb: John Tyler has a new mission: capture a heavily protected target from the Alps and smuggle him back into the UK in time for Christmas. La Rochelle in the dead of night: Tyler boards the Tiburon, a rusting freighter crewed by smugglers and mercenaries, for the last leg of his journey. But he is short on time. His mark’s security team has pursued him across France, determined to retrieve their boss, and they won’t be deterred by an ocean. The race is on. Tyler heads into the Bay of Biscay in a storm, with a pursuing boat snapping at his heels. But when his prisoner is found murdered inside a sealed hold on the ship, everyone on board becomes a suspect. In the flickering light of the Tiburon’s passageways there’s nowhere to run, but everywhere to hide. Some might think the situation is spiralling out of control, but they don’t know John Tyler…
Comment: D.L. Marshall’s follow-up to his excellent debut novel ANTHRAX ISLAND is a supremely confident action thriller and mystery. The author successfully blends elements of Alistair MacLean adventure with Bond/Bourne spy action and locker-room mystery into a page-turning cocktail that is irresistible. Marshall skillfully unfolds his story by mixing the present with events in the two-week lead-up to Tyler boarding the Tiburon with his human cargo. The action is frequent and bloody but described with self-awareness and frequent nods to popular culture– notably The Beatles, Band Aid. and, like the latest Bond movie, elements of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The reader has fun spotting these obvious and not-so-obvious references. There are twists galore and a cliff-hanger conclusion that leaves you wanting more. BLACK RUN shows Marshall to be a writer of immense talent, whilst Tyler is a hero whose human fallibilities make him endearing and less of a superman than others that flood the genre.

Book Review – GIVE THE BOYS A GREAT BIG HAND (1960) by Ed McBain

GIVE THE BOYS A GREAT BIG HAND (1960) ****
by Ed McBain
This paperback edition published by Penguin, 1987, 176pp (170pp)
First published in 1960 (USA)
© Ed McBain, 1960
ISBN: 978-0-140-02310-7
Blurb: The mystery man wore black, and he was a real cut-up king. Why else was he leaving blood-red severed hands all over the city? Was he an everyday maniac with a meat cleaver, or did he have a special grudge against the 87th Precinct? Steve Carella and Cotton Hawes went along with the grudge theory because the black-cloaked killer didn’t leave any clues to go on – the grisly hands even had the fingertips sliced off. And how do you nail a murderer when you can’t identify or unearth most of his victims? That’s what the boys of the 87th Precinct have to do: find a killer before he carves up any more corpseless hands!
Comment: The eleventh of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series is an efficient and neatly plotted mystery, which finds McBain moving back to the series’ core procedural format after a couple of diversions. The detectives have to find the identity of a corpse from just a pair of severed hands. McBain takes us through the investigation via his trademark engaging prose and witty dialogue. Whilst the story does not veer from the formula that made the series so successful, it remains an engaging read in the hands of a master storyteller. McBain effectively builds the tension in the finale by intercutting scenes as two leads converge into one a climax that is both shocking and satisfying.

Book Review – KING’S RANSON (1959) by Ed McBain

KING’S RANSOM (1959) ****
by Ed McBain
This paperback edition published by Penguin, 1987, 176pp (172pp)
First published in 1959 (USA)
© Ed McBain, 1959
ISBN: 978-0-140-02219-3
Blurb: Half a million dollars – or a boy’s life . . . But what if that boy isn’t your own son? And what if paying the ransom will ruin the biggest deal you ever made? What do you do then? Throw away your future or sacrifice someone else’s child? That was the dilemma facing wealthy Douglas King. Detective Steve Carella of the 87th Precinct can only keep trying to find the kidnappers and hope that Doug King will decide to give them the payoff. Because if he doesn’t, Carella will have a case of cold-blooded murder on his hands.
Comment: The tenth book in Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series is the strongest so far. McBain takes time to flesh out each of the key characters and this elevates the story beyond the procedural formula adopted up to this point, thereby widening the series’ scope. By presenting his central character, the driven and ambitious businessman Douglas King, with the dilemma he does, McBain allows himself to comment on themes of corporate greed and loyalty through three-dimensional characters. McBain’s strengths of plotting, characterisation and dialogue are again in full evidence here and this book marks the point where McBain began to hit his stride with the series. This was also the first series appearance of the obnoxious Detective Andy Parker.

Book Review – ‘TIL DEATH (1959) by Ed McBain

‘TIL DEATH (1959) ***
by Ed McBain
This paperback edition published by Penguin, 1986, 160pp (157pp)
First published in 1959 (USA)
© Ed McBain, 1959
ISBN: 978-0-140-02164-6
Blurb: The wedding day of Detective Steve Carella’s sister Angela should be the most romantic, special day of her life. But it might turn out to be the worst if her brother can’t figure out which man on the guest list has come to murder the groom. Carella and the men from the 87th Precinct find themselves on the clock as they desperately hunt amongst the name cards and catered dinners for the would-be assailant. Trouble is, the crowd has numerous people with viable motives: the best man who stands to inherit everything the groom owns, the ex-boyfriend with a homicidal crush, and even an ex-GI with a score to settle. But time is ticking, and if they don’t act fast, Angela will become a bride—and a widow—on the same day.
Comment: The ninth in the 87th Precinct series written by Ed McBain is this offbeat story set at the wedding of Carella’s sister. As such the story acts as a diversion from the grittier storylines that precede and follow it. The result is a minor entry in the series that coasts on McBain’s command of his characters and dialogue. The plot itself often lacks plausibility and as such fails to engage in the way his earlier titles did. Even at a brief page count of just under 160 pages, there are elements of padding where the author and his characters philosophise. That said McBain’s skill as a writer gets him through to a tense, if somewhat familiar, finale. Not top-draw McBain, but an often fun and diverting and easy read despite this.

Book Review – LADY KILLER (1958) by Ed McBain

LADY KILLER (1958) ***
by Ed McBain
This paperback edition published by Penguin, 1986, 176pp (172pp)
First published in 1958 (USA)
© Ed McBain, 1958
ISBN: 978-0-140-02019-9
Blurb: “I will kill the Lady tonight at 8. What can you do about it?” The boys of the 87th have just twelve hours to find out who the crank letter writer is–and who he means by “the Lady “–for whom there will be no second chance.
Comment: This is often listed as the eighth of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels, but as I read through it I realised it was written and set before Killer’s Wedge, so is the seventh. Having read the whole series before, this can now be seen as a warm-up for some of the Deaf Man cases that infrequently occupied the squad’s time. Here a would-be killer taunts the squad that he will kill “The Lady” at 8 pm and it is up to the detectives to track down who wrote the note and who the intended target is. The investigation leads the squad down some blind alleys before they close in on their target. The book is one of the lesser of the early entries which, whilst endowed with McBain’s usual excellent prose and dialogue, feels a little bit manufactured and the conclusion leaves the reader questioning the motives of the detectives’ quarry. It is still a quick and entertaining read and a formula that McBain would develop better in the Deaf Man books.

Book Review – KILLER’S WEDGE (1959) by Ed McBain

KILLER’S WEDGE (1959) ****
by Ed McBain
This paperback edition published by Allison & Busby, 2007, 242pp (233pp)
First published in 1958 (USA)
© The Estate of Ed McBain, 1958
ISBN: 978-0-749-08023-5
Book CoverBlurb: Her game was death – and her name was Virginia Dodge. She was out to put a bullet through Steve Carella’s brain, and she didn’t care if she has to kill all the boys in the 87th Precinct to do it. So Virginia, armed with gun and bottle of nitro-glycerine, spent a quiet afternoon in the precinct house, terrorizing Lieutenant Byrnes and his detectives with her clever little homemade bomb. They all sat there waiting for Steve Carella. Could all the men of the 87th, prisoners of one crazy broad, be powerless to save Carella from his rendezvous with death…?
Comment: This is the seventh of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels and here he takes a different approach by making the main plot a tense thriller and the sub-plot a mystery. The revenge plot in which Virginia Dodge holds the 87th squad captive at gunpoint with a jar of nitro is extremely well written by McBain as the tension escalates. He uses third person and first person perspectives to heighten the tension and frame the varying viewpoints of the characters. Meanwhile, Virginia’s intended target, Steve Carella, is investigating the death of a wealthy socialite found hanged in a locked room. The latter sub-plot follows a very traditional mystery path and is merely a supporting function to the main story. Suspense is heightened when Carella’s wife, Teddy, arrives at the squad room only to be confronted by the siege. A successful diversion for the series continuing McBain’s impressive run.

Book Review – KILLER’S PAYOFF (1958) by Ed McBain

KILLER’S PAYOFF (1958) ****
by Ed McBain
This paperback edition published by Penguin, 1987, 160pp
First published in 1958 (USA)
© Ed McBain, 1958
ISBN: 978-0-140-02119-6
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.

Book Review – GENESIS – 1975 TO 2021: THE PHIL COLLINS YEARS (2021)

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
ISBN: 978-1-838491-80-2

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).