At Tipping My Fedora we thrive on challenges and in that spirit have decided to review each and every one of the 87th Precinct mysteries written by Evan Hunter as ‘Ed McBain’. They were originally published in the US between 1956 and 2005 and a complete rundown of the 55 volumes in the series has been placed on my blog here (there is also a link to it on my banner), with the page being updated with links to my reviews as they appear.
Today I continue my series of reviews of the 87th Precinct mysteries with the second in the series. As it was published before 1960, it is also eligible under the guidelines of Bev’s 2011 Mystery Readers Challenge.
The Mugger (87th Precinct series #2)
First Published: 1956
Leading players: Meyer Meyer, Lt. Peter Byrnes, Bert Kling, Roger Havilland, Hal Willis, Fats Donner, Alf Miscolo, Eileen Burke, Sam Grossman, Claire Townsend, Monoghan and Monroe
“Clifford thanks you, madam”
This volume follows on directly from Cop Hater, the book that launched the 87th Precinct series, and which had concluded with an epilogue set at the wedding of Detective Steve Carella and his beautiful bride Teddy in mid August 1956. It is now September and the Carellas are still on their honeymoon and patrolman Bert Kling is just getting out of hospital after the shooting incident also depicted in the previous book. Against his better judgement, but itching for something to do while on medical leave, he gets involved in the life of Jeannie Paige, a beautiful but troubled 17-year old girl, at the behest of her brother-in-law, an old acquaintance of Bert’s. He has asked Bert to talk to her as he thinks she may have fallen in with the ‘wrong crowd’ but on top of that this is clearly a time for a young woman to be very worried. The city is in fact being plagued by a mugger with a peculiar but consistent modus operandi – he only picks on women, grabbing them from behind, punching them to keep them quiet before, stealing the content of their purse and before leaving bowing and thanking them. A dozen such cases have already occurred before the books even starts but soon the incidents become more serious when ‘Clifford’ runs into a woman who fights back and who gets sent to the hospital for her show of defiance. Hal Willis is the man in charge and while Carella uses Danny Gimp for information, Willis prefers the gargantuan hipster Fats Donner who regales us with several choice phrases of hilarious 50s argot:
“I don’t dig papers man,” Donner said. “Only the funnies.”
“I don’t make him, dad.”
Willis initially has trouble finding a solid lead and Kling also strikes out on his more personal quest as Jeannie, who is clearly worried and holding something back, rebuffs his offer of help. In this novel Kling really begins his development as one of the true mainstays of the series and this also sets up what will become a pattern in his personal and romantic life which, as often as not, is marred by disappointment and on several occasions outright tragedy. Here the book’s pair of storylines come crashing together when Jeannie’s dead body is discovered, apparently the latest victim of the mugger, clutching in her hand his trademark sun glasses. When the autopsy reveals that she was pregnant, Bert is persuaded by the her sister to undertake his own private and unofficial investigation, which will lead him to Claire Townsend, who will appear in several books in the series. Their first meeting includes what at the time was the almost obligatory reference to the hugely popular TV and radio cop show, Dragnet:
“My name is Bert Kling,” he said seriously. “I’m a cop.”
“Now you sound like the opening to a television show.”
While Kling continues his investigation into Jeannie’s private life, and also continues to find his amorous endeavours hard going, Willis continues his investigation and turns for assistance to female detective Eileen Burke. She was also destined to be a regular member of the cast, re-appearing throughout the series even as late as The Frumious Bandersnatch in 2003, and here is part of an attempt to use her as bait to flush out the mugger, which dramatically backfires and ends up leaving her badly beaten and with little to show for her bravery and a small but vital bit of physical evidence. As we shall see as this series progresses, the boys and girls of the 87th are frequently left with egg on their faces as they try to make the streets safe for law-abiding citizens. This book also introduces Monoghan and Monroe, the Tweedledum and Tweedledee pair of Homicide North detectives who are always seen together and are usually less than enamoured of the officers of the 87th. In this case, Kling gets a massive dressing down from the chief for sticking his nose into their case (though this will indirectly lead to its solution – and to his promotion to Detective at the end of the book). Equally harsh is Havilland’s violent treatment of a suspect who it turns out is innocent. On a lighter note, this book also has a classic first example of Meyer’s extreme patience in the form of a hugely extended shaggy dog story about a cat burglar (sic) with a funny if obscene punchline.
In 1958 producer-director William Berke and writer Henry Kane, having already adapted Cop Hater that year, also produced a version of The Mugger for the cinema, though this time the film they came up with was in one major respect greatly changed from the original novel – they got rid of the entire 87th Squad! Gone in fact were all the novel’s police characters (though Fats the informer remained), to be replaced by a psychiatrist played by Kent Smith.
More tightly plotted than its predecessor, McBain’s book is a fine continuation that brings in many of the remaining regulars of the series and ties it all up with a clever and satisfying twist in the tail.