AXE (1964) by Ed McBain

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 …

***** (2 fedora tips out of 5)

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12 Responses to AXE (1964) by Ed McBain

  1. Some novels in this long series (50+ books!) fall short of the high standard McBain set. Sadly, AX is one of these novels. I don’t know what McBain was up to in 1964, but he seemed distracted when he wrote AX.

    • Hello George and thanks very much for the feedback. Ax(e) probably would have worked better as a novella, though I still quite enjoyed it. It is for me at least marginally better than ’til Death which is, for my money, the weakest of the ones I’ve reviewed so far.

  2. Hello Sergio! From the only 87th Precinct Mystery that I have read and the many reviews of McBain’s books, including yours, I have perused, I have noticed a trend in McBain’s works (though I might be wrong) — a disparate and disturbing bunch of characters, often more than one dead body, and black humour. Perhaps, it was Hunter’s way of adding uniqueness to his novels so that they stood apart from other crime fiction, contemporary or otherwise. If that is, indeed, the case, then he has succeeded quite admirably in pulling in readers.

    • Hi Prashant, thanks for the feedback. McBain was very smart about varying his books – initially he was contracted to write them at a rate of three a year so this was a way to keep things fresh both for the readers and for himself too I suspect. But lesser books like Ax, while still full of interest, do tend to put into relief the elements that recur most frequently and of course you are right. There is nearly always a murder or two, nearly always gallows humour and usually a fascinating with lightly sketched, semi-humorous depictions of low-lifes of varying degrees. But on the whole there is nothing too mechanical or formulaic about the series I’m glad to say. Otherwise I think I’d have to stop reading them, no matter how much I want to be able to pat myself on the back for finishing the complete run!

  3. Randy Johnson says:

    I keep a notebook of series I’m looking to fill out. I used to carry it when I was able to get out and there were mortar and brick bookstores convenient. These days it’s the internet I do my hunting, far easier if less satisfying. According to the book, AX is one of seven that I haven’t read, though I own all of them but one.

    Will get to it soon after your excellent review.

    • That’s great Randy – really not got very far to go. It’s scary to think that there is soon going to be a whole generation of people who may have little sense of the great pleasure to be had from browing in a bookstore. I got my copy of Axe when I was living in Singapore and the next one in the series was bought in San Francisco I think! Axe does feel like a bit of a stopgap but He Who Hesitates is much more interesting. Thanks for the comments.

      • Randy Johnson says:

        Yep, browsing a bookstore is one of life’s little pleasures. The fun of finding a book you didn’t even know you wanted until you came across it can’t be matched. The nearest bookstores to my small are in a medium sized city thirty-five miles away. And considering my health, wheelchair, I’d need help to get to them and probably not enough room to peruse the aisles if I did.

        • I really did have some of my fondest times when I was a student poking around London’s second-hand bookstores (many of which are now gone). I do derive tremendous value from perusing those blogs like yours that draw attention to all sorts of things I’d never otherwise come across as a working stiff usually found chained to his desk. The internet can be great as you say – in fact I’ve already got a couple of Max Allan Collins lined up from your recommendations!

  4. Anders E says:

    It is many years since I read this – probably in the 1980s – but as I recall it it seemed to me that McBain deliberately wanted this to be, well, mundane. He has this murder case, and eventually it turns out that the reason for the killing is as simple – or rather, simplistic – as could possibly be. I would not be surprised if this was intended as the very contrast to HE WHO HESITATES.

    • Hello Anders, thanks very much for the comments. I think you are quite right – I didn’t want to get into ‘spoiler territory’ (sic) but the conclusion is, after many inconclusive or ultimately unrelated avenues of investigation, really quite banal and reinforces the senseless nature of the murder of an 87-year-ols war veteran who had been involved in some dodgy and criminal acts, none of which lead to his death. As you pint out, the contrast to He Who Hesitates, which came out the same year, is crucial.

  5. Pingback: Classic Crime: Ed McBain – Axe « crimepieces

  6. Pingback: BREAD (1974) by Ed McBain | Tipping My Fedora

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