Today we reach another milestone in the 87th Precinct mysteries by Ed McBain, one that introduced one of its most nefarious characters. This is the twelfth of my reviews, all of which are listed here. This page will be updated as I progress through the entire run, which was published originally between 1956 and 2005.
“Get out of that loft by the thirtieth, or I’ll kill you”
The Heckler (87th Precinct series #12)
First Published: 1960
Leading players: The Deaf Man, Steve Carella, Meyer Meyer, Bert Kling, Frankie Hernandez, Andy Parker, Peter Byrnes, Sam Grossman, Teddy Carella
For every hero, even a corporate one, there must be a nemesis – for James Bond it was the cat-stroking Ernst Stavro Blofeld, for the ‘Yellow Peril’ Dr Fu Manchu it was Nayland Smith, for Nero Wolfe it was Arnold Zeck and for Sherlock Holmes it was the ‘Napoleon of Crime’, Professor Moriarty … and The Heckler is the novel that introduced an arch-criminal to Ed McBain’s series of police procedurals, one whose evil plans would dog the team for decades to come – get ready to meet …The Deaf Man.
“There are crazy people all over, you know that, don’t you?”
It is April fool and jokes and pranks are being played all over Isola – but these take a sinister turn when nasty phone calls are made anonymously to owners of various businesses around the city. They seemingly have nothing in common, except for one thing: they are situated next door to banks and jewellers. McBain’s books frequently show the author’s thorough knowledge of the traditional detective story, right from the debut of the 87th, Cop Hater, which riffed on the plot of Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders while John Dickson Carr and his locked room mysteries were celebrated in Killer’s Wedge. This time it’s the turn of Conan Doyle’s immortal detective Sherlock Holmes, a gambit signaled in the most deliberate manner imaginable – by having members of the squad refer to the particular story in question:
“I’m reading a very good story,” Kling said. “You ever read it Meyer?”
“What’s it called?”
“The Redheaded League,” Kling said.
“No,” Meyer answered. “I don’t read mysteries. They only make me feel stupid.”
‘The Deaf Man’ – who also goes by the wry alias of ‘L. Sordo’, which in Spanish, as ‘El Sordo’, would mean the same thing and who may or may not in fact be a bit hard of hearing – is cast very much in the Professor Moriarty mould and this is a story steeped in Sherlockian lore. Like Holmes’ great foe, he brings a scientist’s skills to the business of crime, calculating the odds to the nth degree, even showing his crew a mathematical formula to explain why they will succeed in their plan. Many scholars believe that Moriarty was in fact behind John Clay’s plan in ‘The Redheaded League’ so this proves particularly apt here – especially since the Deaf Man’s plan in fact relies on the police recognising his use of the short story as a template.
The boys of the 87th are investigating two apparently unrelated crimes – there is the ‘heckling’ of some two dozen businesses and the murder of man found naked in the park. The former is mainly directed at an ironing businesses run by David Raskin, an old family friend of Meyer Meyer who becomes the lead investigator; Steve Carella is the one who has to find out who blew a shotgun hole through a man actually named (to the detective’s incredulity) John Smith. It is unfortunate that Meyer and Carella don’t share information for it becomes clear fairly early on to the reader that they are in fact working on the same case, one that involves a heist, explosives, an ice cream truck and a massive distraction to offset the possibility of police interference. The two strands of the narrative only coalesce when Carella tracks down ‘John Smith’ to an apartment that the dead man should not have been able to afford on his measly pension – and which is the scene for the first encounter between the detective and the Deaf Man. This proves almost deadly for Carella who ends up shot, beaten and in a coma. In some of McBain’s best writing, we vividly explore the oddly lucid turmoil of Carella’s mind while he is in hospital:
“He was staring wide-eyed at the knowledge that he and his colleagues had come up against a type of planning and execution that rendered them virtually helpless … he did not question the intuition nor its clarity – but he knew damn well that it scared him”
The book is a bit of a hodge-podge, including domestic scenes of the Carella family (now including twins, an ‘Oirish’ housekeepr-cum-nanny and a large rambling house made affordable after being sold for back taxes); high comedy as Raskin’s heckling becomes more and more outrageous and elaborate as food, chairs and even an orchestra are sent to his premises in an effort to make him vacate by April 30th; and a couple of mildly erotic interludes (one involving Steve and Teddy, the other with the Deaf Man and a voluptuous waitress) of the kind that McBain would normally reserve for his books as ‘Evan Hunter’ or his later Matthew Hope thrillers; and an entire section between chapter 8 and 9 in which a series of events is related purely in the form of memos and reports.
But this book is most importantly the one that serves to introduce the Deaf Man, and in this regard it does a superb job as we follow, with horrified fascination, his execution of a truly cold-blooded criminal scheme that paralyses the city and puts the lives of thousands of citizens at risk just to pull off a $2.5m heist. Clearly this is a major villain and one we will have to keep our eyes and ears (sic) open for. In what will prove to be a pattern for later encounters, the plan is eventually foiled but only by chance and so the Deaf Man makes a Moriarty-like escape, plunging into a body of water. Unlike his literary progenitor though, he will resurface in several more novels later in the series – these are:
- Fuzz (1968)
- Let’s Hear it for the Deaf Man! (1972)
- Eight Black Horses (1985)
- Mischief (1993)
- Hark! (2004)