Today I continue my series of reviews of the 87th Precinct mysteries by Ed McBain (all of which are listed here). It is also the last covering those published before 1960, so it is eligible under the guidelines of Bev’s 2011 Mystery Readers Challenge.
“By one-thirty that bright Sunday afternoon, Antonio Carella was ready to shoot his wife, strange his son, disown his daughter, and call off the whole damn wedding.”
‘Til Death (87th Precinct series #9)
First Published: 1959
Leading players: Steve Carella, Cotton Hawes, Bert Kling, Teddy Carella, Meyer Meyer, Bob O’Brien
Ed McBain (aka Evan Hunter) experimented with a variety of approaches in his series of 87th Precinct police procedural and here we have one that combines the usual murder and mayhem with elements of what might best be described as a ‘detective’s day off’, showing the squad in a more domestic light, away from the office – at a wedding in fact. In Killer’s Wedge, set during just four hours the previous October, we learned that Steve and Teddy Carella were due to have their first baby. It is now 22 June 1959 and she is about ready to pop – and in his own way, so is Steve … He loves her more than ever, but is none the less missing his old life, especially their conjugal ‘rights’ (sic). Lying in bed on this fateful Sunday morning (the novel is all set on this one day), he looks at Teddy as doubtless many husbands might, considering the big change they are going through:
“Really, darling, he thought, you do look like a mountain … A very beautiful mountain, to be sure, but a mountain nonetheless. I wish I were a mountain climber.”
This slightly salacious train of thought is interrupted when Steve receives a phone call. His sister Angela is getting married later that day, but all is not well – the groom, Tommy Giordano, has just had a nasty shock and asks Steve to come round to his flat because that morning on his door step he found a box - containing a dead but still poisonous black widow spider. Steve decides not to take any chances with his brother-in-law-to-be and asks off-duty friends from the 87th Cotton and Kling to form an unofficial protection detail at the wedding while also getting those still on duty, such as Meyer and the tragically unlucky Bob O’Brien, to try to find out who might hold a grudge against Tommy. Initial clues seem to point to a man he knew while fighting in Korea who blamed him (unfairly) for the death of a fellow soldier and was eventually sent home suffering ‘shell shock’.
“What’s the picture anyway?”
“It’s an old one,” Claire said, “but I think you’ll enjoy it.”
“What is it?”
“Dragnet,” she answered.
This being a story set on a Sunday, we get to spend time with the detectives and their extended families – along with the Carella clan (mother, father, sister etc.) there is Kling and his girlfriend Claire (who gets in one of the series’ last references to the Dragnet TV show) and Cotton and his current innamorata, Christine Maxwell, the widowed bookshop owner who he first met in Lady Killer and who is not happy about suddenly having to go to a wedding – and decides to make him suffer, just a little bit, by being a bit of a flirt at the reception. Then there is the beautiful Teddy who, excluded a little by being a deaf-mute and by her pregnancy, gets a little pang of jealousy when Steve is accosted on the dance floor by an old flame after the wedding.
As long as the book focuses on various sentimental entanglements and comic bits of business – like Cotton and Bert pretending to be showbiz agents, Steve getting asked for advice from the bride and groom about the what to do on the wedding night and Meyer and O’Brien’s long trek through a sleepy neighbourhood looking for a man carrying a trombone case – the books works extremely well and provides a refreshing change of pace. It is rather disappointing though when quite quickly the mystery elements starts to predominate. The car taking Tommy to the church is sabotaged, Angela is briefly and unwillingly taken on a joyride by her ex-boyfriend, someone with a rifle starts taking potshots outside the photographer’s and eventually one of the guests is murdered during the reception in papa Carella’s back garden. None of this is particularly plausible and turns out to be very thinly plotted indeed.
While plenty of jeopardy is engineered – most notably a vicious catfight between one of the many voluptuous blondes that populate the McBain universe and Cotton, here made to pain exorbitantly for his roguish ways – it never really convinces. Though having said that, McBain, along with some choice humour, also has one nice moment which allows Steve to consider the strange juxtaposition of marriage and police work in terms of his own changing domestic life – it is sentimental, a typical trait of the author perhaps, but it also rings true, also typical:
Teddy, sitting out there, with a baby inside her, creating with no effort, creating by nature, is accomplishing more than I’ll accomplish in fifty years of police work.
A great many of the novels written by Evan Hunter were turned into movies while most of the 87th Precinct stories published under the ‘Ed McBain’ pseudonym were adapted for television at one time or another, either in the US or in Japan (!). Many of course were used for the original 1960s 87th Precinct TV series, which adapted ‘Til Death for an episode broadcast in December 1961. However the most unexpected adaptation came 20 years later when it provided the basis for a highly atypical 1992 episode of Columbo (about which I have blogged extensively here). Retitled ‘No Time To Die’, the script by Robert Van Skoyk maintains the wedding and kidnapping parts of the plot but dispenses with all of McBain’s characters (presumably for contractual reasons), though it keeps the wedding photographer from the plot and, somewhat perversely adds Fats Donner, the corpulent informant who loves steam baths, even though the character (here renamed ‘Tubby Comfort’) doesn’t actually appear in the novel!
Designed specifically as a change of pace for the Columbo series – the good inspector even wields a gun in the climax though at least doesn’t fire it, which is a relief. The strangeness of this episode makes it fascinating, but the truth is it is also a bit of a bore as a story and the producers never tried this experiment again though they did adapt another McBain story a little later, with better results (well get to that one soonish) – this episode in fact stands out so much from the series norm that it even referred to in an episode of The Larry Sanders Show, when Falk guest-starred as ‘himself’. This is, like the novel it very loosely adapted, something of a failed attempt to breakaway from the formula – not without interest or merit, but easily forgotten.
This is in every sense the slimmest and briefest of the books in the series thus far and certainly the least successful of the first 10 McBain books reviewed here thus far; entertaining in parts, but unable to bring its constituent elements into a cohesive whole once the crime elements are introduced. It’s a shame really that the boys couldn’t have had a real day off …