Today we turn to one of the briefest entries in Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series. I am re-reading them in chronological sequence (click here to read my previous reviews) though this is not really necessary as they are all fairly self-contained.
“To tell the truth, it was all pretty goddamn gory.”
Axe (87th Precinct series #18)
First Published: 1964
Leading players: Steve Carella, Cotton Hawes, Danny Gimp, Sam Grossman, Teddy Carella
I offer the following review as part of Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott at her Pattinase blog and you should head over there right away to check out some of the other selections offered this week.
“This case is beginning to bug me, that’s all. If there is one thing I can’t stand, its puzzles.” - Steve Carella
After Ten Plus One (reviewed here), the longest of the 87th Precinct mysteries thus far, Ed McBain followed it a year later with one of the briefest – so brief in fact that even the title was the shortest ever (in some editions the three letters are reduced even further to just two: Ax). Barely three days into the new year (1964) and Carella and Hawes already have a murder to deal with: the 87-year-old George Lasser, manager of a tenement building, is found veritably hacked to pieces in its basement with the titular instrument embedded in his skull. His body was discovered by a curious 7-year old boy, leading to the first of several tense encounters between Carella and pairings of mother and son. There is also Sam Whitson, the muscled but slightly slow-witted Korean vet who chopped wood for Lasser (think Lennie from Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men as played by Michael Clarke Duncan and you’re there), protected by his diminutive mother; Manny Moscowitz, a young lad of five who lives in the house opposite the home of the Lasser’s, his mother letting the policemen know that the family across the street isn’t particularly well-liked for its reclusiveness; and then there is George Lasser’s wife, an ex-actress and now a paranoid schizophrenic who is looked after by Tony, her agoraphobic son. Disturbed by her first suicide attempt just after he left home to go to college, he is now a complete shut-in. In fact he hasn’t left the family home since coming back from college in the early 1940s. Tony is a truly sad figure, gnawed by guilt, who only lives through the books he illustrates, completely detached from social contact except for his mother, who is no longer even able to recognise him.
“As a matter of fact I don’t have many friends.” He paused again. “My books are my friends.”
But why would anyone want to murder the old man? Well, it could be that he organised a regular crap game in the basement where he was found, through every indication is that this was for very low stakes. Although this turns out to be an elaborate red herring, it leads to a second murder when a crooked cop on the take who was paid to look the other way goes back to the scene of the crime to make sure he is not implicated. Instead he meets his death and the investigation ratchets up several notches, even though the cop was despised and disliked in equal measure by practically everyone on the force. This a breezy, fast-moving novel that despite a slender plot just about sustains its length with several extended asides such as a nice flashback to the early life and non-criminal career of snitch Danny Gimp. There’s also plenty of banter and even room for a few in-jokes – checking on an alibi for a man who says he works in a book store, Hawes quickly shoots back by asking: “Who wrote Strangers When We Meet?” The joke of course is that the high-class soap in question was authored by McBain but published as by Evan Hunter. That the various vignettes don’t necessarily add up to a cohesive whole is, to a certain extent, a desired effect – the men of the squad can’t be expected to solve everybody’s problems, though of course we want them, need them, to at least solve the crime. This means that Carella can’t cure Tony Lasser of his acute sense of guilt and can’t stop the man’s cruel neighbours when they gang up on him to get rid of his sick mother who they consider to be a social embarrassment. At one point the very idea that the case might not be solved is mocked by Sam Grossman as being inconceivable:
“What do you think’s going to happen? That the bad guy’s going to win? Don’t be ridiculous”
However this is precisely what McBain was planning in He Who Hesitates, truly one of the more unusual entries the series. In it we are provided with a new and fascinating point of view on the activities of Carella and the others of the 87th. But that, as they say, is a story for another day …