HE WHO HESITATES (1965) by Ed McBain

Today we turn to one of the most anomalous entries in the 87th Precinct series, which I am currently re-reading in the order of original publication (my previous reviews can be found here). The chronology of the series is only occasionally relevant, though ‘Ed McBain’ (aka Evan Hunter) does generally make an effort to be consistent and when necessary reference earlier developments. In reading them this way, what can often come into sharp relief are the contrasts between individual volumes. This was perhaps never truer than when we compare He Who Hesitates with Axe (1964), the ultra traditional volume that preceded it.

“He supposed he should go to the police”

I offer the following review as part of he 2012 Alphabet of Crime community meme over at Kerrie’s Mysteries in Paradise blog, which this week has reached the letter H. I also offer this book as part of Friday’s Forgotten Books meme, run by Patti Abbott at her Pattinase blog. You should head over there to both of these sites right now and check out some of the other selections on offer.

He Who Hesitates (87th Precinct series #19)
First Published: 1965
Leading players: Steve Carella, Andy Parker, Cotton Hawes, Hal Willis, Dave Murchison, Teddy Carella

We’ve all done it, stopped to take stock, pausing to ponder what we should do next: eat that extra slice of cake, buy that marginal item just because it’s on sale, confess to any one of a small number of possible indiscretions perhaps. This is the dilemma facing Roger Broome, a large but affable chap and something of an innocent, a country bumpkin visiting the big city to sell the wooden goods he makes back home with his brother. He is staying in a low rent apartment in a fairly rundown neighbourhood just long enough to deliver the goods he brought in his pick-up truck before heading back home. Throughout the book he tells people about his life with his brother and his (somewhat dominating) mother back in Carey, near Huddleston, the location for the ski resort featured in The Empty Hours. No one seems to have heard of it, but Roger just keeps telling them anyway – his landlady, the girl in the store, a local drug dealer and a gay man who tries unsuccessfully to pick him up in the park. He even tells Cotton Hawes and Hall Willis when they come to question the tenants in his building after an old fridge is stolen from the basement. Roger seems largely oblivious to his crummy rat-infested surrounding, but perhaps this is because he has something on his mind, something he needs to confess …

“How did you kill it? The rat, I mean.”
“I squeezed it in my hands,” Roger said.

The story, which all takes place on one day, follows on from Axe, the briefest entry in the series thus far and the most conventional perhaps. But now comes one of the strangest, a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern view of the 87th squad. It is set one month after the events in the previous story – it is now February (the 13th), bitterly cold, and snowing heavily. But right away we know from the tone that things are going to be a different from the norm because McBain doesn’t regale us with descriptions of the weather and the city as he usually does. Instead we have something much more intimate and personal, the author’s godlike presence as all-seeing, all-knowing narrator completely absent. The result almost reads like an 87th precinct mystery without the 87th Precinct, even though the boys do appear in it. Part of its fascination in fact stems from the sheer incongruity of an ‘Ed McBain’ book seemingly without any of the ‘McBain’ trademarks – and yet, really, it could have come from no one else as he was an author truly adept at ringing the changes and keeping the format as fresh as possible. Instead of the author’s usual persona with its characteristic mixture of romance, sentiment and deadpan humour, we instead spend a lot of time getting inside Roger’s head so as to understand better the decision he has to make … and the indecision that plagues him.

“I don’t know what a white man in trouble looks like.”

Roger keeps heading off to the police station but never quite makes it inside the building, often waylaid by people he meets quite innocently (he doesn’t even realise when someone is trying to pick him up), though he also keeps finding excuses to postpone the deed – but what is it he has to confess? He follows Steve Carella out of the office with a view to stopping him on the street so he can tell him his troubles, but ultimately he never does go up to him. Instead he meets Amelia, a young woman in a store and the two click and decide the spend most of the day together, eventually ending up back at his place, sharing drinks with some of his neighbours and making fun of the fact that the landlady had her fridge stolen. Eventually the neighbours leave and the two manage to spend some more intimate moments together. Although he’s a little bit worried what his mother might think as she is of mixed parentage, he has already decided that he wants to stay over in the city. You’ll have noticed that I’m delaying getting to the heart of the plot, but actually I haven’t. We do discover what Roger has on his mind through a series of interlocking flashbacks, but this is more about seeing the Squad and the city from an outsider’s point of view, with a consequent reduction in the plot quota. But don;t let this put you off, because the shift in perspective works exceedingly well. It doesn’t change what we feel about the series or the more standard McBain storytelling techniques in his other books, but it does give us something fresh and different.

The book ultimately works itself into a fine psycho-sexual frenzy in its long concluding chapter as we finally discover just why Roger thinks he has to confess and what this might mean for his burgeoning relationship with the sweet Amelia. This is a fine addition to the series and a highly polished little novel in its own right, displaying the author’s usual narrative dexterity in a new and totally fascinating light. I began this challenge to review all the 87th Precinct books almost exactly a year ago with Cop Hater and it is particularly gratifying to find the series still surprising and stimulating almost 20 volumes later. Roger incidentally would reappear in a more traditional entry later in the series, Shotgun (1969), to tie up some loose ends …

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

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28 Responses to HE WHO HESITATES (1965) by Ed McBain

  1. Sergio – A fine review, for which thanks. You make such a well-taken point that one really can (and quite probably should) view the McBain novels as separate entities although of course they are related. I like that about them though; there are more than 50, and it’s difficult to make time to read all of them let alone in order. You’ve made some well-taken points about the less traditional more psychological feel of this one too.

    • Thanks very much Margot, very kind. It is taking me a bit longer to get through the series than I first anticipated, but hopefully I’ll manage all 55 volumes and will then try to draw up a useful index to them with a view to signposting the various styles and approaches that emerge. Only another 36 to go …

  2. HE WHO HESITATES shows McBain’s development in the 87th Precinct series. The story is more complex, the cast of characters grows, and after 19 books the setting becomes more real.

    • Thanks George, after the very minor Axe it was a real pleasure to see a deeper approach to the series with such a strong emphasis on the characters. There’s a really fascinating scene in which Roger follows Steve to the restaurant where he is meeting Teddy and he watches them communicate mainly through gestures, which seems emblematic of what McBain wanted to do here (tap in to recesses of his characters and dispense with some of the flippancy) and of course with what separates the simpler, less evolved Roger from the comparatively sophisticated couple.

  3. Maxine says:

    Sounds fascinating, I very much enjoyed your review. It is so nice to find a series one enjoys, and even better when the author is not shy to try something new with it. I’ve still only read Cop Hater, but keep meaning to read more.

  4. TomCat says:

    Hey, I think I passed this one up, when I was in a small, second-hand bookstore last month, in favor of two Perry Mason’s, a Kemelman and a Janet Asimov. Don’t think less of me! I will get to him… eventually.

  5. Another excellent review of an 87th Precinct mystery, Sergio. I’d sure like to know what Roger Broome has to confess and how this story ends. As I have said before, I have read just the one McBain novel, JIGSAW, and my limited understanding of his work (for whatever its worth) is that he tried to be very different in each of his books. There doesn’t appear to be a fixed pattern to his mysteries. I read JIGSAW a few months ago but I can’t get myself to write about it, as I’d have liked to, because McBain’s work is rather intimidating. He is one of those authors whose books you can’t review until you have read them all, or at least as many as you can, to get a better understanding of his work. It’d be somewhat like trying to interview an author after reading just one of his books and that’s not right. I hope this makes sense.

    • Hi Prashant, I opted not to give too much away, but the plot in this is is pretty secondary. I hope you enjoyed Jigsaw – it is from not too far along in the series after this one. You really, really don’t have to read these in any ordeer thouugh and they are mostly small works, brief little cases that are very well written and highly entertaining, but are also genre books that should work entirely on their own. Thanks very much for the comments.

  6. TracyK says:

    I wondered if you would feature Ed McBain in one of your Crime Fiction Alphabet posts. I am glad to see you did. I had checked out some of your reviews of his books earlier, as I am interested in reading the series myself (in order). I just read my first Ed McBain (COP HATER) this year, which is amazing, given how long I have been reading mysteries, and police procedurals.

    • That’s great TracyK – another McBain fan! Really glad you enjoyed Cop Hater as it’s a great intro to the series. Really look forward to seeing what you make of the series.

  7. John says:

    This is one I know I would like – just the right amount of oddness to it. It’s fascintaing to read a writer’s work in chronological order. You to pick up on growth in series characters and experiments in narrative styles. I see the same things as I slowly go through Jonathan Craig’s much smaller output. They changes and variations are subtler than McBain’s, but they’re present all the same. Maybe McBain needed a break from what sometimes seems too formulaic in a police procedural.

    • Cheers John – I really look forward to engaging with Craig as I’ve really been enjoying your reviews (and trying very hard not to read too much of the plot descriptions, even though you are very fair in this regard). For me what comes through in reading these is occasionally that slight tension between the instincts and constraints of mystery author McBain and the more expansive but ‘serious’ arena available to novelist ‘Evan Hunter’, a distinction between personas more commercial than artistic and one the author himself didn’t really buy into. Makes for great reading in this case, perhaps more so than in Candyland (2000), that amusing if necessarily artificial and potential self-defeating two-part ‘collaboration’ between McBain and Hunter.
      Evan Hunter meets Ed McBain - or vice versa ...

  8. neer says:

    I’ve heard of McBain but never read any of his books. Thanks for the fine review. I’ll search for his books now.

    • Hopefully these won;t prove difficult to find – my personal preference is for the earlier and shorter volumes produced up to the mid 1970s, though having said that I’m not sure I’ve ever read a McBain I didn’t like. Enjoy!

  9. scott says:

    I read an 87th Precinct mystery way back when, but I do not remember the title.

    • Hi Scott, well, this is certainly an unusual one – and as far as I know it’s one of the few books from the 87th series that has never been filmed for TV or the cinema, which probably hasn’t helped its profile any! In my opinion,it’s great little novel.

  10. Srivalli says:

    I bought a 3-in-1 book of Ed McBain some time back. Never got around reading them. He who hesitstes sounds interesting, will look for it.

    • Thanks for the feedback Valli, much appreciated. McBain (aka Evan Hunter) was a pretty good novelist by any standard and I think his books stand up very nicely – they are small genre books, to be sure, but display a great variety of approaches and are always written with great care – and humour too, which is an ingredient I am always in favour of!

  11. TomCat says:

    This is completely unrelated, I know, but I wanted to let you know that your piece on John Dickson Carr put an idea in my head, and, today, I finally decided to write and post it. I think you’ll enjoy it.

  12. steve says:

    I remember reading my first 87th precinct novel over twenty years ago and straight away i was hooked. I have a great affection for these novels and think you are doing a brilliant job reviewing the series.

    • Thanks very much Steve, that is very sincerely appreciated. Glad to say my enthusiasm for the books remains as high as ever (I was worried it might flag, which is why I am spacing out the reviews a bit after an initial burst of activity).

  13. rpg1978 says:

    Hi i just came across this site just now. I have been buying and reading the 87th series for a while now and just finished He who hesitates last night (it’s where i am up to in the ‘order’ of the books, been reading from the start). As with the other 87th books i enjoyed it but felt it ended abruptly…

    • Yes, I know what you mean – the story does get ‘cocncluded’ in a later volume but I assumed that that McBain was, by going for a naturalistic approach quite different fromt he series norm, wanted to deliberately avoid a standard wrap-up at the conclusion. I’ll be reviewing a lot more of the 87th series in the near future – hope you enjoy those too.

      • rpg1978 says:

        Yes please do review the other books I am up to nearly finishing Fuzz at the moment, yet another enjoyable read especially as it features ‘him’…I wonder still has the author ever wrote a dull 87th precinct book ? I have the other next two books in the series on the way, Shotgun and Jigsaw !

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