EIGHTY MILLION EYES (1966) by Ed McBain

McBain-80-Million-hb It’s common to hear it said that an act ‘died’ on stage but in the case of TV comic Stan Gifford this proves to be literally true – and in front of 40 million viewers too. This is the premise of this entry in the 87th Precinct series, which I am re-reading in chronological order (my previous reviews are located here).

“Be human,” she said. “You’re dealing with people, not cyphers.”

The following review is offered as part of Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme, which today is being hosted by Todd Mason over at Sweet Freedom. You should head there now to check out some of the other selections.

80 Million Eyes  (87th Precinct series #21)
First Published: 1966
Leading players: Steve Carella, Bert Kling, Teddy Carella, Meyer Meyer, Peter Byrnes, Bob O’Brien, Sam Grossman, Andy Parker

The book begins with a classic situation, one that combines humour and suspense in the kind of everyday scenario that we would all find intimidating and easy to relate to – and which deliberately sounds like the start of a joke. A man walks into his office … to find a stranger waiting and refusing to move. When asked to budge, the stranger threatens the secretary and when a cop turns up he beats the hell out of him. It turns out he has a yen for one of the members of staff – only she claims never to have met him before … Bert Kling takes on the case and discovers that the subject of the stranger’s violent interest is none other than McBain-80-Million-panCynthia ‘Cindy’ Forrest, the girl who caused so much trouble two and a half years earlier in Ten Plus One (click here to read my earlier review). She didn’t like Kling then and doesn’t feel any more warmly now, but he is assigned and must act as her bodyguard while they attempt to flush the man out. It is October 1965 and across town the new TV season has started and hundreds of people are at a makeshift studio to see the biggest comedian of the day. Stan Gifford, a combination of Sid Caesar and Milton Berle, is respected more than he is liked by his colleagues but millions of viewers adore him. The same evening that Bert and Cynthia are failing to get along, in the middle of his mime routine on live TV, Stan keels over and dies.

“The first thing she heard was the voice”

After twenty volumes, McBain once again brings something new to his series. Having already published a book where two separate but thematically linked plot strands ultimately converged (Killer’s Wedge, reviewed here), as well as a collection of novellas, The Empty Hours (which I previously reviewed here), now he combines two previously published shorter pieces, the title novella (which first appeared in Argosy in February 1963) and the 1965 short story ‘The Deer Hunter’, to create a single, longer work. The two cases run in parallel without really intersecting but instead provide contrast, dramatic echo and reflective colour. Anthony Boucher said of this book:

The novelette or novella, the tale of 20,000 to 30,000 words, is an excellent length for the story of crime and detection, but a commercially unpopular one. Readers seem to want a story that will last, at average reading rates, for a whole long evening; so most mysteries run between 50,000 and 75,000 words. But writers, being writers, do like to experiment occasionally with the more concise form – and then what’s to be done with it in hardcovers? Ed McBain comes up with an excellent answer in “Eighty Million Eyes”: take two novelettes and combine them into a contrapuntal novel, so that each story heightens the suspense and casts light upon the theme of the other … Each is very good in itself; combined, expanded and developed, they add up to the best book about the 87th Precinct in several years.

McBain-80-Million-pb2How well do the two stories dovetail into each other? The straight answer is that they don’t, not really. Carella and Meyer are assigned to the Stan Gifford case and have a knotty problem to solve – the studio had over 500 members in the audience and a crew of 212 (!) and yet it is unclear how any of them could have killed the comic. The autopsy reveals that he died from a  rare and quick-acting poison – strophanthin – but nobody saw him drink any water and the only pill that he took was at lunchtime, several hours before, which is impossible because the poison once ingested would have killed him in a matter of minutes. Perhaps infected by the variety show atmosphere, Carella and Meyer trade jokes throughout the story while trying to crack a very tough nut.

“He’s very cooperative,” Carella said.
“Yes, he’s very very cooperative,” Meyer agreed.
“Let’s put a tail on him,” Carella said

A peanut also features in Kling’s story, which introduces a new love interest for the lovelorn cop in the initially hostile Cindy. This is much more of a thriller as we see her being stalked by the mysterious attacker who then delivers an awful punishment for a purely imagined slight. This leads to a dark and violent scene in which she is brutally assaulted and McBain, without being exploitative, plays this for maximum realism and generates a real impact, especially as the tone has hitherto been comparatively light. Science comes to the aid of both solutions, with Kling is ultimately able to track down the despicable assailant thanks to some fancy (if perhaps slightly unlikely) forensic work performed by Sam Grossman’s lab on debris left by a shoe, while Carella is able to figure out the ingenious murder method by examining the remedy Meyer is taking for his head cold.

Neither tale sees McBain at his best (both suffer from weak motives) but they are none the less laced with enough humour and ingenuity to deliver the winning combination series fans had come to expect. The author’s penchant for jokeyness however would take a fascinating left turn in the development of Fuzz, the next instalment in the series that also saw the return of arch foe ‘The Deaf Man.’ A review of the book, and the movie derived from it, will be coming to this blog soon …

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

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40 Responses to EIGHTY MILLION EYES (1966) by Ed McBain

  1. Agreed, Sergio, that this novel isn’t McBain at his best. Still, I must say I award a lot of ‘innovation points’ to this one as it is a stretch. And I do like the wit in it as you point out. Besides, McBain on a ‘not the best’ day is better than heaps of others at the top of their games. A fine review Sergio, for which thanks.

    • Thanks very much Margot – and yes, second tier McBain is sill much better than most! His willingness to experiment and keep the series fresh over so long is also really attractive – the next book, FUZZ, was a bit hit commercially but was a very noticeable deviation from any that had preceded it.

  2. Probably worth a mention, Sergio, that there are a whole load of McBain books, especially the 87th Precinct, available on ebook. Not this one, though.

    These were only recently released, but there seems to be seemingly random selection of 23 titles – Cop Hater and The Mugger, for example, but not The Pusher. Maybe someone out there knows more… Oh, only £1.99 each. If it was a complete series, I might be giving it some thought

    • Thanks for the update Steve – the UK kindle books are listed here. When I did my Amazon blog post (see here) on the new Kindle editions they were only available in the US, so really glad to see that at least half of the books in the series have ‘crossed the pond’, so to speak – and that is a great price too.

      • Is there any logic that you can see to the omissions?

        • When I corresponded with the rep at Amazon (who are the actual publisher in this case) they said it was simply that they hadn’t secured all the rights – it may also be a question of some titles being easier (or less expensive) to make into e-reader formats so they were testing the waters commercially too.

  3. Colin says:

    Well I still haven’t gotten round to any of these 87th Precinct books, so I don’t have much to say about this one.
    However, I was intrigued by that comment by Boucher on novellas. I think he was spot on that the short novel is one of the best formats for the crime story. I’m very fond of the novella as a format myself – I think I’ve said this before but the older I get, the less tolerant I’ve become of bloated novels. I love the snappiness and economy of the shorter work, and the way it forces author’s to trim all the unnecessary padding away.
    Unfortunately, and Boucher’s comment bears this out, I seem to be in the minority on this one.

    • I agree with you Colin – particularly with the traditional mystery / whodunit you often felt that an extra murder (or two) was added just to pad it out to the commercial required book length of the day – Agatha Christie was certainly guilty of this on occasion. But of course this is as nothing compared with the modern equivalent running 450 pages with a plat barely strong enough to support a book a third of that length. I really enjoy the economy of the McBain and Simenon novels for instance. I am really enjoying going through the 87th Precinct series in chronological order but in about 8 books time the novels get a lot longer as market requirements changed and I’m not looking forward to it actually as the quality became a lot more variable.

      • Colin says:

        Yes, I dearly wish we could get back to the days of a tightly written 250 page novel. I honestly can’t get my head around this concept of another 250 pages of non-story somehow adding value for money. I don’t mind length if there really is a tale or subject that warrants it, but it’s simply not the case with most crime books. The irritating thing is that there’s often a good story lurking in among all the excess – I’ve come to the point though that I feel life’s too short to be bothered sifting through this stuff to find it.

        • Shame, isn’t it? One hopes that the rise of the less expensive to produce e-book may make books actually fit their own individual size rather than some preordained commercial shape – having said that, I suspect that when ti comes to fiction TV in particular has tended to both supplant the shorter length tale but also made the use long-form serialisation even more ubiquitous, which of course balloons the length again. It’s a vicious circle I tells ya!

  4. John says:

    212 people on a TV crew in 1966? How big was that studio? What the hell were they all doing? Electrics, maybe? The unions are a bit crazy about who does what in the entertainment industry. That might explain it , but it seems excessive. The opening paragraph made this book sound like an impossible crime and I was happy to discover it seems like it is one. I’ll have to find this one. There are two stores here that have huge amount of McBain’s books for $3 a pop.

    While I’m obsessed with numbers today: 5000 comments! I’m not even half way there. But you do have a lot of long conversations with Colin so it’s understandable how you got there so quickly. ;^)

    • I reckon you and Colin are probably responsible for at least 50% of the comments and I cherish each and every one of them! Well, 212 did seem an absurd number (McBain repeats it too so it’s not meant to be hyperbole) though being a live variety show I guess you would have to include all the writing staff, the chorus girls, of course the, the various guest artists etc etc – while I was reading it I kept picturing that fabulous Peter O’Toole movie, My Favourite Year, which was set in the 50s – presumably McBain here is describing what would have truly been one of the last live shows being broadcast from the east coast on network TV.

      • John says:

        But the crew means the people who run the show and you’re including the cast (chorus girls, guest artists). Maybe I just can’t envision that many people in a TV studio. It could have been enormous like a movie soundstage with men up on catwalks running lights and spots, and several dozen assistant stage managers and floor managers to handle the huge cast. I’ve always thought early TV production (especially live TV) was like theater production with the addition of cameras and monitors. Maybe by the 60s TV studio backstage life was already largely bureaucratic as it is today and there were all sorts of executives with middle management jobs running the show. That’s the only way I can account for the huge number.

        My Favorite Year – fabulous movie! Maybe you should write it up one of these Tuesdays.

        • Hiya John – well, I suppose in the book they just make the distinction between the audience and everybody else who is working at the studio, which in context is presented as a converted warehouse in the less salubrious part of town. I love all the stories surrounding the making of the various Sid Caesar shows (even went to see Gene Wilder star in the London production of Neil Simon’s own take on the same material that Mel Brooks used in the movie in Laughter on the 23rd Floor – the TV-Movie with Nathan Lane I liked a lot less though). I guess there is a crime subplot that could make My Favorite Year acceptable as a Fedora title – hmmm… thanks John!

  5. TomCat says:

    Sergio, I hope that you can forgive this wanton act of self-promotion, but as one of the blogosphere’s most vocal advocate of Ed McBain I thought you would like to know that I took a first crack at the 87th Precinct series. I went for the safe choice, Killer’s Wedge, but it’s a perfect introduction for a classicist like me – don’t you agree? ;)

    You can read my review here.

  6. TracyK says:

    I am always excited to see a review on an 87th Precinct book by Ed McBain and this is a great one. I have only read one McBain, the first one, and I do want to work my way through the series, and in order. I was interested to see that this was two novellas. Rex Stout did that a lot.

    • Thanks TracyK – it is certainly an interesting exercise, to see McBain combine two novellas rather than present them separately like Stout – it’s not one of the best but a worthy effort none the less.

  7. This one’s not yet in my modest collection of Ed McBain’s novels, Sergio, so thanks, indeed, for reviewing it here. Having read your review I think I can get around to it eventually. Of the few McBains I have read I can’t but admire his great ingenuity in terms of theme, plot, and characters, not to mention his writing where many of his lines “stay on” long after one has read his novels. I’d rate McBain as one of the top unconventional writers of crime fiction.

    • Thanks very much Prashant, good to hear from you. Are you returning to your blog soon? I did enjoy Eighty Million Eyes one, especially as part of my ongoing review of the entire series, but for instance I am much keener on some of the books that followed such as Fuzz (to be reviewed here at Fedora shortly), which experimented with broad comedy, and the fascinating Hail, Hail, The Gang’s All Here which combines about a ten separate plotlines into one of his standard 160-page books!

      • Sergio, I am planning an early April return to blogging though I am up for a very short vacation around the time. I haven’t read much or seen many movies during my hiatus, so I don’t have anything worthwhile to write about, save for general observations. I have been visiting and reading blogs regularly though not always leaving comments. Meanwhile, I am regaling myself with a few P.G. Wodehouse.

  8. There’s a certain quaintness in some of the books of the long-running 87th Precinct series. Eighty Million Eyes is one of them. Very few U.S. TV programs today can lure 80 million viewers to watch anything unless it’s a Super Bowl.

    • Ah but it’s really 40 million with 2 pairs of eyes each! But of course you are quite right and indeed I think his description of a live comedy variety show was pretty out of date even for 1966 – what he’s describing really belonged to the 50s I think. Thanks George, I think ‘quaint’ is precisely the right word though the much tougher story about the stalking of the innocent Cindy certainly works as a corrective, which doubtless McBain/Hunter intended.

  9. TomCat says:

    One more thing (completely unrelated, by the way), but if you search on YouTube for “Baantjer” in combination with “English,” you’ll find that someone has uploaded the television movie with subtitles. I re-watched it and the subtitles are fairly accurate, but I think that a cold review from someone else will be more interesting than me ranting for an entire page through the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia.

    You might find the movie interesting, after reading one of the books last month, because it’s more of a crime story (an ex-colleague of DeKok is murdered) than a whodunit (like the regular series) and a lot darker overall.

    I didn’t want to go off-topic too much, but I couldn’t find an email adress to dispatch a quick message to.

  10. justjack says:

    Hello Sergio. I don’t know how I managed it, but I happily stumbled upon your wonderful blog. I too am reading the 87th Precinct stories, in order, and 80 Million Eyes is currently the last book I’ve read. Your commentary has been very interesting to me, and I’ve been enjoying coming to see what you had to say after each new book in the series as I finish it.

    I thought it was curious that the two parallel stories had so little connection to each other, so your explanation of the book’s origins was enlightening–though I should have figured it out when the copyright page listed two separate titles and publication dates, one each for “80 Million Eyes” and “The Deer Hunter.” Even though the seam showed pretty clearly, I still enjoyed the book as a book–kind of like some of Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op novels.

    Colin’s commentary on the modern trend to bloat novels resonated with me. I’ve been loving these 50′s and 60′s McBain novels, and their length strikes me as being just right–and in keeping with the length of novels in other classic (but now forgotten) detective series by William Campbell Gault and Thomas B. Dewey. And then of course, there is the prolific Simenon and his equally compact Maigret novels, of which I also am a fan. Frankly, I’m kind of worried what the later 87th Precinct novels are going to be like; they’re mighty fat looking.

    • Thanks for the kind words Jack, realy kind of you – that’s great that we are more or less keeping up apace with the McBain books – next review will be Fuzz hopefully not to long to go now. I am with you about some of the later 87th novels – I haven;t read them all (yet) but some of the longer ones were certainly less successful.

  11. justjack says:

    Well, Sergio, I’ve just powered through Fuzz and Shotgun back to back and loved them both. Can’t wait to read your in-depth reviews! But I do have two things to say here, sort of as a placeholder.

    First, “Teh Sixties” has arrived at last in the world of the Eight-Seven; “fuzz” of course is up to date slang for the cops, while in Shotgun we get a housewife humming Penny Lane, a liberated young woman wearing most definitely mod styled clothing, and a whole host of hippies spouting beatnik poetry to the accompaniment of Bola Sete styled bossa guitar.

    And Second, I have a theory I wanted to bounce off you: is Ed McBain, having been thwarted in killing off Steve Carella back in The Pusher, deliberately punishing Steve in this recent string of books?

    • Nice one Jack – I suspect uou are dead right. As Carella became moe clarly placed as the immutable hero of the series, McBain/Hunter toyed with us and made him and us suffer as a result! Interesting how the language gets udated – FUZZ reviw coming shortly and it certainly has plenty of salty language, doesn’t it?

  12. Pingback: SADIE WHEN SHE DIED (1972) by Ed McBain | Tipping My Fedora

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