Book Review – BREAD (1974) by Ed McBain

BREAD (1974) ****
by Ed McBain
This paperback edition published by Pan Books, 1976, 191pp
First published in 1974
© Ed McBain, 1974
ISBN: 978-0-3302-4850-2
Blurb: The summer heat is sweltering. Tempers are rising. When the watchman in a warehouse filled with imported wooden figurines dies with a bullet to his head, the cops of the 87th Precinct are called in–but the case doesn’t end there. A fatal hunger for “bread” seems to be spreading throughout the city as a hooker loses her life in the quest for dough. Money is lost in a warehouse fire. Cash is flying in a slum redevelopment deal. And what the cops find behind a tale of fire and money is murder–and lots of it.
Comment: The 29th book in McBain’s 87th Precinct series returns to the single plot/case scenario of the early books and is a highly satisfying read. McBain’s cast of detectives is augmented by the bigoted, but relentless, Ollie Weeks of the 83rd. He is a colourful character and his interaction with Carella and Hawes creates an interesting dynamic. McBain’s authorial flourishes add his own personality to the storytelling. The dialogue flows easily throughout as the detectives doggedly get to the bottom of arson and murder with a shady cast of suspects.

Book Review – HAIL TO THE CHIEF (1973) by Ed McBain

HAIL TO THE CHIEF (1973) **½
by Ed McBain
This paperback edition published by Pan Books, 1975, 140pp
First published in 1973
© Ed McBain, 1973
ISBN: 978-0-3302-4491-4
Blurb: Carella looked in the frozen ditch. Kling fanned his flashlight over the naked bodies. Who was responsible – Death’s Heads, Scarlet Avengers or the Yankee Rebels? A couple of detectives with six corpses on their hands needed all the help they could get. They wouldn’t get it from the gangs, that was for sure. Those guys didn’t fool around. You were either their friends or you were their enemies. All hell was set to break loose…
Comment: Book number 28 in McBain’s 87th Precinct series is another departure from format. This time McBain interweaves the police investigation with the statement of the key perpetrator as Carella and Kling move between the three key gangs whilst trying to solve a multiple murder. The problem here is that we cannot really invest in these gangland characters. This is a similar problem to that encountered in McBain’s earlier attempt to tackle youth gangs in his 1960 novel, See Them Diealthough there he had a better framework with which to add some social commentary and colourful characters. The fact that the mystery element is all but removed from this novel turns it into more of an examination of gang culture as a metaphor for national, international and cultural conflict. That it also feels manufactured shows how much the subject is outside of McBain’s comfort zone. His strengths have always been in plot development, character and dialogue and here these qualities are less evident. As a result, this book is one of his least successful efforts.

Book Review – LET’S HEAR IT FOR THE DEAF MAN (1973) by Ed McBain

by Ed McBain
This paperback edition published by Pan Books, 1976, 160pp
First published in 1973
© Ed McBain, 1973
ISBN: 978-0-3302-4307-1
Blurb: “You’ll have to speak a little louder,” the voice said. “I m a little hard of hearing.” Between a highly successful cat burglar and a hippie crucifixion, the 87th Precinct definitely doesn’t need the Deaf Man showing up again especially since his two previous appearances resulted in blackmail, murder, and general havoc. But at least they have him now…unless he had them first. The Deaf Man can hardly contain his glee. Detective Steve Carella is about to inadvertently help him rob a bank. Each day, he mails Carella a picture to keep the game going. The first two are pictures of J. Edgar Hoover, while the next ones involve George Washington. All are clues, obviously. But how do they add up? And will the 87th Precinct find out before the Deaf Man has the last laugh?
Comment: The Deaf Man, last seen in 1968’s Fuzz, returns for this the 27th book in McBain’s prolific 87th Precinct series. It would appear that McBain was looking to cash in on the movie adaptation of Fuzz, released the previous year. This time the Deaf Man’s scheme returns to his roots from 1960’s The Heckler, by his attempts to tease and wrongfoot the detectives, and in particular Carella, whilst planning a bank heist. As was becoming a regular approach, McBain weaves in two other unrelated plots: the first concerning apartment burglaries, where the perpetrator leaves a kitten as a calling card; the second featuring a murder in the form of crucifixion. McBain’s strengths in dialogue and plotting remain evident throughout, but the Deaf Man’s scheme feels a little boiled over by repeating that seen in his 1960 debut. This book takes a straighter approach than that seen in Fuzz, and the squad are presented as more competent. On the domestic front, we get to meet Kling’s new love in model Augusta Blair. Their romance feels a little rushed as it competes with the trio of plots. Nevertheless, this is another enjoyable read.

Book Review – SADIE WHEN SHE DIED (1972) by Ed McBain

by Ed McBain
This paperback edition published by Pan Books, 1974, 160pp
First published in 1972
© Ed McBain, 1972
ISBN: 978-0-3302-4012-9
Blurb: Christmas is coming. But erudite attorney Gerry Fletcher got his present early: his wife’s body with a knife buried in it. Though he shamelessly cops to being happy she’s dead, his alibi is airtight and all signs point to a burglary gone bad. But even when detectives Steve Carella and Bert Kling follow the clues to a junky punk and get a full confession, Carella can’t quit thinking there’s something about the case that’s as phoney as a sidewalk Santa’s beard. Maybe it’s because the victim’s husband wants to pal around with the suspicious cop on a cryptic pub crawl through the urban jungle. Or maybe it’s the dead woman’s double identity and little black book full of secret lovers. Whether she was Sarah the shrewish wife or Sadie the sex-crazy swinger, there’s more to her murder than just a bad case of wrong place, wrong time. And Carella won’t rest till his cuffs are on the killer.
Comment: The 26th book in the 87th Precinct series by Ed McBain is one of the strongest. McBain skillfully navigates us through Carella’s dogged investigation of Fletcher by creating a relationship between the two similar to the formula used in the Columbo TV series (for which McBain would later adapt a couple of his novels). This is again another experiment in format for McBain, but here he is much more successful. A subplot involves Kling and his relationship with the mysterious Nora Simonov, which lands him in more trouble than he has bargained for. As would become an increasingly used formula, the two plots have no link, merely show McBain’s broader cast of characters in their ongoing domestic and work lives. As Carella closes in on Fletcher, the attorney becomes increasingly paranoid and the plot is neatly brought to a satisfying conclusion as Carella’s stakeout unearths the secrets of Fletcher’s marriage.

Book Review – HAIL, HAIL THE GANG’S ALL HERE! (1971) by Ed McBain

by Ed McBain
This paperback edition published by Coronet Books, 1995, 190pp
First published in 1971
© Ed McBain, 1971
ISBN: 978-0-3405-9330-1
Blurb: There are 186 patrolmen and a handful of detectives in the 87th Precinct, but it’s never quite enough. Because between petty crimes and major felonies, between crimes of hate and crimes of passion, the city never sleeps — and for these cops, a day never ends… The night shift has a murdered go-go dancer, a firebombed black church, a house full of ghosts, and a mother trying to get her twenty-two year-old to come home. The day shift: a naked hippie lying smashed on the concrete, two murderous armed robbers in Halloween masks, and a man beaten senseless by four guys using sawed-off broom handles. Altogether, it’s a day in the life. But for a certain cop in the 87th Precinct, it could just be his last…
Comment: In the 25th book in the 87th Precinct series McBain again looks to try something new in an attempt to freshen up the series. This time he presents a day’s caseload for the detectives of the 87th squad, each of which could have been a short story in its own right. The book is not structured in traditional chapters, and is instead divided into two sections – “nightshade” and “Daywatch”.  These sections deal with the detective’s night and day shifts and follow the teams as they investigate a number of contrasting crimes. As the book’s title suggests, McBain gives space to all the detectives on the squad, allowing each to have a moment in the sun, This means we get to meet some of the squad who have been rarely featured previously, as well as all the regulars. The result is a disjointed novel, that perhaps represents the realistic caseload handling of a detective squad, but lacks a central hook that threads through the cases together. The dialogue is as strong as ever and the broader character spectrum provides additional interest. An interesting experiment, albeit one that lacks cohesion.

Book Review – JIGSAW (1970) by Ed McBain

JIGSAW (1970) ***
by Ed McBain
This paperback edition published by Pan Books, 1972, 159pp
First published in 1970
© Ed McBain, 1970
ISBN: 978-0-3302-3172-3
Blurb: Every day the men of the 87th Precinct solve puzzles. Of lives interrupted, lives intertwined and lives gone wrong on the streets of the city where they work. Sometimes the clues come easy. Sometimes they come covered in blood… Six years ago four men robbed a bank. Then a shootout left them dead, and 750 grand missing. Now Detectives Carella and Brown are finding pieces of a photograph, each piece tied to a name, each name tied to a murder, each murder tied to the bank robbery six years ago. The 87th Precinct cops know that the complete picture will lead them to the money. They just don’t know how many people still have to die — before the last piece falls into place.
Comment: The 24th book in Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series is a literal puzzle as the detectives look to piece together a photograph to discover where $750,000 in stolen loot is buried and to solve some murders along the way. Here, McBain follows a mainly traditional format, but spices the story with elements of racial tension as Arthur Brown becomes the lead detective on the case. The solution is achieved through Brown’s acted physical intimidation of a southern girl who has become embroiled in the plot, but along the way we see him deal with society’s prejudices with mixed emotions. McBain’s writing is as assured as ever, but you can feel him reaching to add something new to the series and this case enables his characters to adapt their approach accordingly. A solid entry in the series.

Book Review – SHOTGUN (1968) by Ed McBain

SHOTGUN (1968) ***
by Ed McBain
This paperback edition published by Pan Books, 1971, 158pp
First published in 1968
© Ed McBain, 1968
ISBN: 978-0-3300-2702-6
Blurb: A psycho has butchered a nice young couple and he’s loose somewhere in the 87th Precinct. He has a name, an address and an identity. Walter Damascus is a third-rate lothario who likes his women well off, well built and dead, along with their husbands. Sooner or later he will surface.
Comment: The 23rd book in Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series sees the series return to a more serious tone with a particularly nasty double murder opening the book. McBain weaves in many other elements, including tieing up loose ends from an earlier book (He Who Hestitates), so much so that he frequently leaves the main plot to do so. The investigation, therefore, progresses procedurally without fully capturing our attention. Intermingled are domestic asides – Carella’s family celebrating Halloween and Kling’s fragile relationship with Cindy Forrest – and a third murder, seemingly unrelated to the main plot. As ever, McBain brings the story threads together in a clever finale, but as a whole, the book feels a little piecemeal.

Book Review – FUZZ (1968) by Ed McBain

FUZZ (1968) ****
by Ed McBain
This paperback edition published by Pan Books, 1970, 205pp
First published in 1968
© Ed McBain, 1968
ISBN: 978-0-3300-2463-9
Blurb: The detectives of the 87th Precinct are confronted with a call – clearly a crank call – that threatens the life of the city’s parks commissioner unless a ransom of $5,000 is paid. The deadline soon passes and the parks commissioner is shot in the head as he leaves a rock concert. Soon, another anonymous warning follows and the deputy mayor is blown up in his Cadillac. The next target is the young, charismatic Kennedy-esque mayor who is on the hit list of what can only be called a serial assassin. It is up to the hardworking detectives of the 87th Precinct to find the shrewd murderer before he can strike again.
Comment: Ed McBain returns with the 22nd book in his 87th Precinct series following a two-year break. The book is a mix of detection, thrills and comedy, with the latter adding a delicious flavour to the mix. McBain is not afraid to show the fallibilities of his detective heroes and here they are often made to look inept by their master-criminal nemesis the Deaf Man, returning after his appearance in book number 12, The Heckler (1960). Three separate cases here dovetail through happenstance into a chaotic finale. For once the solution is not achieved through procedural detective work, it is merely resolved through blind luck. The Deaf Man’s scheme is clever and is only undone through his own vanity and bad timing. The dialogue is amongst the best in the series, notably in the sidebars: the station being decorated apple green by two painters who trade verbal barbs with the detectives; Meyer looking to sue an author who has used his name for the title of his book. The comedy is broadest in a stakeout in Grover park with Kling and Meyer dressed as nuns; Willis is a sleeping bag with female detective Eileen Burke; Genero disguised as a blind man with his guide dog who ends up shooting his own leg. That McBain juggles these elements, both serious and comic, so well is a testament to his skills. The result is one of the strongest books in the series, which would be adapted for the big screen four years later.

Book Review – EIGHTY MILLION EYES (1966) by Ed McBain

by Ed McBain
This paperback edition published by Pan Books, 1970, 172pp
First published in 1966
© Ed McBain, 1966
“The Dear Hunter” © Pyramid Publications, 1965
“Eighty Million Eyes” © Popular Publications, 1965
ISBN: 978-0-3300-2462-4
Blurb: When top TV comic Stan Gifford died there were plenty of witnesses – 40 million viewers, plus the studio crew and audience. Detectives Meyer and Carella had never had it so good, but when pretty Cindy Forrest undressed for bed, there was no one to watch – except her attacker.
Comment: The 21st book in Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series sees McBain interweaving two separate plotlines – a traditional whodunnit mystery and a psychological thriller. The nature of the book betrays the origins of these plotlines as two separate shorter pieces published in magazines the previous year. The mystery plot, written with a light touch, concerns the poisoning of a TV comic and detectives Carella and Meyer hunt down leads through the questioning of suspects and the forensic evidence. The thriller plot has a darker and more sinister tone with a dangerous stalker menacing Cindy Forrest (who appeared as the daughter of one of the victims in Ten Plus One) and Kling assigned to protect her. Both cases work to simultaneous and satisfying conclusions. The dialogue is breezy and the writing confident, but the stitched-together nature of the stories is evident as there is no linking theme or crossover between the cases. That said this remains an excellent example of McBain’s versatility, even within the same book.

Book Review – DOLL (1965) by Ed McBain

DOLL (1965) ***
by Ed McBain
This paperback edition published by Pan Books, 1970, 158pp
First published in 1965
© Ed McBain, 1965
ISBN: 978-0-3300-24823-5
Blurb: She was a living doll–until she was slashed to death. Detective Steve Carella wants Bert Kling on the case, even though Kling is making enemies of everyone. Then finally even Carella has had it with Kling, and suddenly the detective is missing and suspected dead. The men from the 87th Precinct go full tilt to find the truth. But they really need to find is a little doll–the little doll with all the answers.
Comment: The 20th book in Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series finds the author returning to his trademark approach, but with a new twist. Here, he weaves elements of psychological terror into the procedural narrative, with Carella captured and being forced into drug addiction and becoming a sexual plaything by a psychotic woman. The doll of the title is both the key to the mystery and a metaphor for Carella’s incarceration. The tension builds as Kling and Meyer race against time to locate their colleague, whilst investigating the murder of a model. The book can be seen as marking the beginning of a new chapter in the series with McBain pushing further at the boundaries of sensationalism – a theme he would often return to in later books. Whilst the move was bold it somehow seems to slightly cheapen the material and, as a result, the book is not wholly successful.