DOLL (1965) by Ed McBain

After an unexpected break of several months I return to the urban (and sometimes urbane) world of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct with one of its best and most compact entries so far. I am at present re-reading the entire corpus of 55 books in chronological sequence (click here to read my previous reviews). This is not strictly necessary however as they are all fairly self-contained – and when they rely on details from earlier volumes, as is very much the case here, McBain always brings the reader right up to speed with a quick update – in this case, the sad decline of detective Kling.

“… there were times lately when Bert Kling gave him a severe pain the ass””

I also submit it for Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott at her Pattinase blog but this week hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog. You should head there right away to check out some of the other selections offered this week.

Doll (87th Precinct series #20)
First Published: 1965
Leading players: Steve Carella, Bert Kling, Teddy Carella, Peter Byrnes, Meyer Meyer, Arthur Brown, Hal Willis, Andy Parker

It is a balmy April but there is evil and violence under the sun – Tinka Sachs, a highly successful fashion model earning a walloping 150 thousand dollars a year, has been brutally stabbed to death while her young daughter Anna played with her doll in the room next door. While this provides the nub of the story, it’s the lingering consequences of a McBain-Doll-pbsimilarly cruel murder of a young woman years earlier that is the real concern here. It’s been nearly four years in fact since Kling’s fiancée Claire Townsend was murdered (in Lady, Lady, I Did It!, which I previously reviewed here) in a random shooting at a bookstore and he has never really recovered – indeed, it seems to be affecting him more and more negatively. From being the youngest and brightest detective in the Precinct, his grief has turned him sour and into very bad cop indeed – argumentative with suspects and even hostile with his colleagues. The lieutenant wants to transfer him out but Steve Carella won’t give up on him and so asks that they be partnered on the Sachs investigation, a decision that will have disastrous and fatal consequences for both of them …

“Psychology substituted understanding for condemnation. It was a very nice tool to possess, psychology was, until a cheap thief kicked you in the groin …”

After nearly a decade and 20 books in the series McBain shows how well he is able to keep up with the times, using language that is stronger than ever (two uses of the F bomb, very surprising in a mainstream mystery of this vintage) and realistic bone-crunching violence; and adding a strong and uncomfortable emphasis of sadism and sexual perversity. In theory Carella  solves the murder a third of the way through the novel, but it proves to be very far away from the end of the story. After another argument with Kling, Carella decides to go back to Tinka’s McBain-Doll-dell2apartment – shortly afterwards he is seen hurriedly leaving, holding one of Anna’s dolls. He has in fact found a crucial clue but, still angry with Kling who left his shift hours early after being told off for his bad behaviour while interrogating Sachs’ agent, decides to go it alone. He rushes off to make an arrest, though crucially we don’t know who, why or how he is planning to do it. He drives to an address, kicks down the door of an apartment but makes a serious miscalculation and is struck from behind and knocked out. This is when the story takes a dramatic left turn – when Carella awakes he find himself stripped naked, handcuffed to a radiator and at the mercy of a vicious drug addict and his even more dangerous girlfriend.

“I’m life or death to you,” she said.

The voluptuous brunette turns Carella into her plaything and starts pistol-whipping him just for fun – she then breaks his nose, starts injecting him with heroine and threatens to knock out all his teeth out if he won’t tell her how he found them. But the detective stands firm. It isn’t a very realistic notion that two drug addicts trying to cover up a murder and holding and torturing a policeman would extend the process for very long, and this proves to be the case – the next day Carella’s car is found burned with a charred, toothless body inside together with the missing officer’s badge and ID. McBain had tried to kill Carella off before in The Pusher (reviewed here) but ultimately was talked out of it. This time though the whole department goes into mourning, even the thuggish Andy Parker crying in his sleep over the death of his colleague. Kling is immediately taken off the case, Byrne vowing to get him kicked off the force. Meyer is put in charge of the investigation but Kling, to honour the memories of Steve and Claire and of the man he once was, slowly starts to find his self-respect again and begins by investigating the suspicious activities of Sachs’ ex-husband who was allegedly out of time at McBain-Doll-pb3the time of the crime. There are plenty of surprises in store (and a few twists that you will probably see coming too) as well as McBain’s trademark reproduction of physical evidence – in this case we even get some examples of Tinka’s modelling portfolio as well as samples of her writing and extracts from a psychiatrists’ diary. The latter is introduced towards the end of the book and conveniently fills in many plot gaps, though it does also slow the momentum of the story. However this is clearly a deliberate strategy on the author’s part to draw out the suspense, which he does superbly.

This is one of the best of the series, offering a teasing puzzle and powerful and emotional look at the men of the 87th as they cope with the disappearance of one of their own. It also explores themes of addiction, sadism, sexual and psychological dominance and submission – and ultimately catharsis and redemption, in a sophisticated and rewarding fashion. A winner all the way.

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

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28 Responses to DOLL (1965) by Ed McBain

  1. Sergio – That’s always been one of the real shining facts about this series. McBain was never afraid to deal with very dark and complex issues in a gut-level way. Not all of the books are this intense of course but they all (Well, the ones I’ve read anyway) deal with the issues at hand in a realistic and unflinching way. You’ve really got that quality spot on here. Excellent review.

    • Thanks very much Margot – certainly one would hope that this would keep the books fresha nd topical, after at nearly 50 years distance – one suspects that mcBain/Hunter would have hated for them to be regarded as period pieces.

  2. TracyK says:

    You have reminded me I need to get back to reading the 87th Precinct series… for the first time. I have only read the first one, but have The Mugger and The Pusher. Definitely plan to read them in order.

    This looks like a good and thorough review, but I confess to skimming it because I don’t want to know much about books I haven’t read yet.

    • I’ll echo TracyK’s sentiment – thanks for the reminder to try this series again.

      • Cheers mate – I know they are not entirely your cup of java but I have to say it was great coming back to the series. For good or ill, expect a lot more McBain reviews in the coming months …

    • Thanks TracyK – I promise to never give too much away, though I am not always as scrupulous as the Puzzle Doctor about spoilers! On the other hand, in the case of this review, fans of the 87th will know that I have been deliberately misleading however …

  3. Colin says:

    You know, I still haven’t gotten round to reading any of the 87th Precinct stories. You make them sound great though, and I have picked up the recently released DVD set of the TV show. I haven’t actually watched it properly yet, but it was a great price and the prints seem to be in reasonably good condition.

    • I’ll make a believer of everybody yet! I was really tempted by the DVD set but haven’t taken the plunge yet – glad to hear it looks reasonable. Were they taken from 3mm prints do you know? Cheers.

      • Colin says:

        Can’t say for sure, but they don’t have a dupey look – if you know what I mean.
        The box cover says they’re sourced direct from Universal.

        • Thanks for that – their release of JOHNNY STACCATO was utterly sublime whereas CHECKMATE was all taken from 16mm sources or worse and was based on syndication material so it’s hard to know what you’ll get – very reassuring chum, thanks.

          • Colin says:

            Charging ever so slightly off topic here but I received the newly released 10-disc Naked City best of set today. Amazon Canada had it cheap as chips as a pre-order and it arrived in three days, hand delivered by DHL. A quick scan shows the prints used look really excellent.

          • Well done chum, I am really envious as I bet I would get blobbered by sustoms – never seen that show but was just thinking that I would like to see it and ROUTE 66 too – do you have any of those?

          • Colin says:

            No, never seen any of those either.
            As for Naked City, the pre-order price was just a shade over $20 Canadian so I don’t think import charges would have been a factor in any case.

          • The envy brimmeth over – just thought you’d like to know that!

  4. Patti Abbott says:

    I spent many hours with the 87th precinct and enjoyed every minute of it. Great characters, plots, writing.

  5. McBain really hit his stride with the 87th Precinct in mid-Sixties. By then, McBain had perfected his series’ template and could write books like DOLL with style and panache. The later books in the series grew in pages, but I prefer these lean, stripped-down procedurals.

  6. Mike says:

    As you know—because you commented on my (fairly) recent post about “Doll”—I don’t think quite as highly of this effort as you do. It’s a jumble of many different elements (too many, in my view), all packed into a relatively short narrative. There isn’t much of a puzzle for the cops to solve, so it needs to work at the level of a thriller. Yet its brevity keeps it from working very well at that level, either.

    Now, that said, it’s a powerfully well told *story.* People underestimate McBain, I think. Because he was very popular and very productive, they assume that he merely turned out a lot of popular product. But he does something a little different in every novel (as you demonstrate thoroughly in your review here), and he finds a way to grip you with every line of every scene that he writes.

    Here’s a link to my take on this one:
    http://onlydetect.wordpress.com/2012/11/01/ed-mcbain-doll-1965/

    • Thanks for that Mike and the link which i had meant to include because your review was one of the reasons I delayed posting this one as I thought the blogosphere could only cope with some many takes on the novel in such a short space! The mixture of elements is what gives this book its distinctive feel I would counter – each on their own isn’t especially strong, quite true, but I think the combination is superb – but, clearly a question of degree and personal preference and I am a big fan of McBain’s skills so I dare say I’m a bit of a soft target …

  7. Powerful stuff, Sergio, and creepy if I may add. I didn’t know McBain went into his plots with a scalpel and blade, so to say. This one is completely unexpected for me, having read very few of his books yet, in spite of sitting on a pile of his paperbacks gathered painstakingly over the past one year. How close would you say McBain’s cops, cases, investigations, and police routines are to the real thing? I suspect not very dissimilar.

    • Very interesting point Prashant – according to the author he did regularly keep tabs on police procedure but in the end found it restrictive – which is why this is set in ‘Isola’ and not New York. Although this is one of the tougher novels, this is undeniably a romanticised view of cops and the work that they do. other authors presented a much bleaker and probably more realistic picture – just not necessarily as entertaining!

  8. piero says:

    Oggi è uscito il primo di una serie di venti appuntamenti del Corriere della Sera con il Giallo. Il primo della serie è Seven Dead, “La casa dei sette cadaveri” di Farjeon. L’ho preso, nonostante lo possegga già nella serie dalla quale è stato tratto. L’ho preso perchè te lo regalerò la prossima volta che ti invierò libri. Casomai ti interessasse qualcuna delle altre uscite (qui il link :
    http://store.corriere.it/letteratura/i-gialli-del-corriere-della-sera/MBCsEWcVtI4AAAE83gAEL5Yh/ct?TopCatalogCategoryID=jNisEWcVqUcAAAEoJetUIZLO&ShowAllProducts=YES ) fammelo sapere, osicchè te lo prenda. Sono stati presi dal catalogo Polillo che, tranne alcuni titoli già pubblicati da Mondadori), pubblica solo inediti di provenienza anglosassone. Io li ho già tutti, ma qualcuno lo riprenderei (anche perchè venduti alla metà) per regalarlo a qualche amico, tra cui tu.
    Fammi sapere poi.
    Piero

  9. steve says:

    My first experience of reading Ed Mcbain was a couple of his Matthew Hope novels and although i enjoyed them it wasnt until i started on the 87th precinct books that i knew i had found one of my favourite crime writers. Doll was one of the first i read and is one of the best in my opinion. I am looking forward to seeing what you think of his later novels in the series. I have yet to read all of them but they appear to become a bit more hit and miss. Great review.

    • Thanks very much Steve, glad you’re a fan of this one too. My recollection is that I felt the best of the McBain titles were the shorter ones, which was the case until the late 70s at which point he was required to write longer books by his publishers. A little while to go yet though and am really looking forward to re-readng some of my favourites of the 70s such as Sadie When She Died and Blood Relatives.

  10. Sarah says:

    I’m gradually working through the series and reading them completely out of order which is proving to be quite fun. When I was a teenager, my local library had loads of these books but they didn’t do it for me then. However now I absolutely love them. McBain is a classic example of an author that has come into his own at a specific time of my life (if you know what I mean).

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