The Alphabet of Crime community meme over at the Mysteries in Paradise blog this week reaches the letter K. My contribution this week is made up of a quartet of the 87th Precinct mysteries by Ed McBain published before 1960 so as to also be eligible under the guidelines of Bev’s 2011 Mystery Readers Challenge. Today’s book is …
KILLER’S PAYOFF (1958)
“You can carry deduction only so far”
This novel continues directly from Killer’s Choice, the previous book in the series, and begins about 10 days later. It includes some of the same characters from that novel and in fact even reveals the name of the murderer in passing, so the two should definitely be read in sequence if possible. It is still June 1957 but the balmy weather has turned to rain and one evening, in the style of a 1930s gangster hit, a man is gunned down from a passing car. But Sy Kramer isn’t shot with a tommy gun – rather, it’s a hunting rifle and he wasn’t a mobster but a blackmailer, albeit a prosperous one living the high life. And now it’s up to detectives Kling, Carella and Hawes to find out which of his victims decided to turn the tables and become a predator.
As with the previous novel we are presented with a mysterious shooting and a small cast of suspects to choose from, very much in the style of the traditional whodunit. And once again what helps ring the changes is the use of reproductions of official documents from the investigation to give the story the strong tang of verisimilitude including police booking slips and prison release forms. In this book we also find out a bit more about new squad members Hawes – specifically his rakish way with the ladies as he moves through a succession of one-night stands, falling instantly in love with the beautiful women he meets on the job, and then falling out of love with them again almost as quickly. This could be a pretty unpleasant portrait of a highly malajusted Lothario or an obsessive sexual predator were it not for Hawes’ good humour and for the fact that the women he meets seem to understand exactly what he is like and in fact share his interest in the shortest of short-term relationships.
Joining the team in this installment is Arthur Brown, the 87th most prominent black officer, who here is assigned to monitor the phone calls of one of Kramer’s victims: the curvaceous wife of a prominent politician who had been paying to keep her past as a glamour model out of the news and suppress the cheesecake photos she took before she got married. This does little for Brown’s characteristic impatience however as he spends days on the job bemoaning his lot while the other detectives are also kept busy with a succession of interviews and fact-checking exercises that strike most of them as being largely unnecessary and which they regularly have to apologise for.
This is typical of both the book’s realistic approach to investigative routine and to the depiction of the job found in the series as a whole. Indeed much of the humour – and the tone is essentially light and comedic – derives from the sheer mundane level of the fact-checking and the tracking down of potential suspects undertaken as the detectives have to deal with the most banal of routine assignments, interviewing practically anyone who recently had contact with Kramer. A particular highlight comes when Hawes goes to interview Kramer’s girlfriend – she mistakes him for a plumber and he even ends up mending her shower – before taking her out for the evening! In a characteristic touch, when Hawes is later caught off-guard in two dramatic sequences this is seen in ironic terms – in the first instance, while trying to apprehend someone who has been tailing him, he is badly beaten and cruelly hit below the belt (karmic retribution perhaps for his all his romantic extra-curricular activities?), and yet, though paralysed with pain, all he can do is think of jokes at his own expense. The second comes in the climax to the case, where he plays a hunch and nearly gets himself killed in the process.
The characterisation isn’t quite as strong as in Killer’s Choice perhaps but this entry offers a surprisingly complex plot that is logically worked out while juggling, with seemingly effortless dexterity, several subsidiary narrative threads as the squad tries to track down Kramer’s marks and his most recent activities, including a hunting trip which may hold the key to his demise. The resolution to the crime is ingenious and it’s hard to imagine that many readers will be able to guess the identity of the murderer.
Tomorrow this brief look at some of the cases of the 87th Precinct continues with Killer’s Wedge.