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 – 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 – THE CON MAN (1957) by Ed McBain

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
ISBN: 978-0-140-01971-1
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.

Book Review – THE PUSHER (1956) by Ed McBain

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
ISBN: 978-0-140-01970-4
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.