SHOTGUN (1969) by Ed McBain

McBain-Shotgun-pan-cropThis is a great example of where reading the 87th Precinct mysteries in order of publication (for my previous reviews, click here) really pays dividends. Along with the series’ usual mixture of clever plotting and good humour, Shotgun also resolves a major plot point left dangling in an entry published years earlier and which I might otherwise have probably blinked and missed.

“It’s pure and simple. He knocked her off, and then turned the gun on himself”

The following review is offered as part of Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her Pattinase blog.


Shotgun  (87th Precinct series #23)
First Published: 1969
Leading players: Steve Carella, Bert Kling, Richard Genero, Teddy Carella, Meyer Meyer, Cotton Hawes, Arthur Brown,  Sam Grossman, Dave Murchison, Monoghan & Monroe

It’s been six months since our previously recorded interlude with the 87th and we are in the midst of an unusually temperate late October. For some this is a time of new beginnings, like Richard Genero for instance, newly promoted to Detective (third grade). For others, it is the end, like the couple found gunned down in their uptown apartment. After the comedy high jinks of Fuzz, the previous entry in the series, this book begins with a graphic aftermath of a double murder designed to bring us crashing right down to earth again.

“She had soiled herself in death, either in fear before the act, or in a relaxation of sphincter muscles when the shotgun blast tore away half her head”

McBain-Shotgun-pbThe murder of Mr and Mrs Leyden initially seems open and shut, with the husband pegged as the culprit by the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of Homicide, Monoghan and Monroe – only thing is, after shooting his wife and then himself with a pump-action shotgun, the husband apparently then expelled the spent cartridge on to the carpet, which is clearly impossible as Carella points out to them.  He and Kling are on the case and soon find a very plausible suspect by the (unlikely) name of Walter Damascus, a nightclub bouncer who bought the eponymous weapon the couple were shot with and who has now gone missing. But is it really him? And why would he execute an apparently happily married husband and wife?

“… he began weeping and at last said, “My mother’ll kill me”, and signed three copies of the typed confession. It was nice to solve old cases. The lady who had been stabbed, however, the lady named Maggie Ryder was still one of them”

At the same time Meyer is investigating the stabbing of middle-aged poet Maggie Ryder, found dead in her apartment in one of the less salubrious parts of town. She had little money and no enemies to speak of, so who would want to plunge a bread knife into her chest – and who would do it so neatly, with so little fuss, leaving no evidence at all of any kind of altercation? On the other hand a man gets drunk in a bar and admits to killing a woman years before – this appears on the face of it as just one of many ironic asides in the book that stray from the main investigtion, but it is in fact the belated resolution to He Who Hesitates, a case left open-ended at its conclusion some four years before. The casual, almost off-hand closing of this cold case is very much part of this book’s character and colour, one where themes and ideas are explored in parallel rather than head-on – indeed perhaps the most substantial single section isn’t directly related to the plot at all. Instead its about the power of movies, the desire to investigate mystries, the sexual impetus in us all and much more besides …

“Well, it occurred to me that perhaps police investigation is similarly linked to the primitive and infantile desire to understand the primal scene”

Kling heads to his girlfriend Cindy’s place looking to bed down with her and put some of his current troubles behind him for a while, unaware that he is probably responding unconsciously to the strong pass made at him by the secretary at Mr Leyden’s place of work. His ardour is quickly cooled however because he finds Cindy exhausted, worried about her studies and suffering from PMT – so really not in the mood for sex. He tries to convince her to change her mind, as many a man doubtless would, but eventually gives up as she really won’t be McBain-Shotgun-9781612181813persuaded. Instead he listens to her disquisition on the Antonioni film Blow Up (1967), which has inspired her doctoral thesis that she now plans to entitle, ‘The Detective As Voyeur’. As Evan Hunter, the author had written the script for Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) and was aware that a lot of deep meaning was being read into the finished film, most of which he claimed was sheer bunk. But here Cindy’s psychoanalytical interpretation of the film and the way that investigation (and by extension, reading about such things) can be seen as an extension of Oedipal themes is pretty persuasive and allows the author to smartly ruminate on his work without seeming heavy-handed and actually drop a couple of clues in plain sight.

“It doesn’t seem possible, does it?”, Carella said.
What doesn’t?”
“That a guy could vanish into thin air. We know his name, we know where he lives, we’ve got his fingerprints, we’ve even got a good description of him. The only thing we haven’t got is him”

Kling is always destined to be unlucky in love and when he does go and interview the sexy secretary he is seen by Cindy, who proceeds to create a gigantic scene outside the police station, much to his colleagues’ undisguised amusement. Needless to say, jealousy is ultimately revealed to be crucial to the solving of both the cases in this book. The two plots are very neatly dovetailed and, though they may not tax the expert mystery fan too greatly, are perfectly satisfying none the less, keeping the dual themes of sexual passion and police investigation interconnected right to the last page. Both for its self-reflexive qualities and for the smart dialogue, fast pace and well-structured story, this is once again a short, sharp 87th Precinct novel to savour.

To find out more about the late Evan Hunter and his books as ‘Ed McBain’, visit www.edmcbain.com/

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

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19 Responses to SHOTGUN (1969) by Ed McBain

  1. le0pard13 says:

    Must confess I’ve heard of this series, but have read not a one. Probably need to change that. Thanks, Sergio.

    • My pleasure Mike – you can very easily dip in and out though personally, if you were looking for somewhere to start, I would suggest a pre 1980s title as being the most consistently representative.

  2. Sergio – Thanks – as always, this is a thoughtful and well-crafted review. I think one of the things I like most about this series is the way the characters’ lives and the cases they investigate revolve around themes without Hunter/McBain being explicit about it. And I’ve always loved the writing style. Oh, and I couldn’t agree more about the worth of reading the series in order. I know – it’s a lot of books. But I do think the series is better enjoyed that way.

    • Thanks Margot – Hunter probably never got the credit he deserved ofr his McBain books, but then that is so often the fate with genre products – or at least used to be.

  3. Colin says:

    Another tantalizing review of an 87th Precinct story. Even though I still haven’t read any of the books, your pieces have sold me on their quality.

    • Thanks Colin – they are highly entertaining and I am happy to be revisiting them though the agument that TV cop shows have supplanted this kind of fiction are hard to dismiss, though once the books arrive in the 70s it is interesting to see how the language gets stronger and more realistic in some cases while some of the themes explored get quite dark too, certainly something that would not have been permissable on the TV of the day.

  4. Kelly says:

    I’m pretty obsessive about reading books in order, especially if they’re part of the series. The movie connections sound interesting. I have the first 87th precinct book lying around somewhere, so I’ll probably dip in eventually.

    • Thanks Kelly – must admit, I’m getting more out of this than I though I would and not just for the connections between books but for a real sense of development within the series as it progresses (good and bad)

  5. TomCat says:

    Another enticing review, Sergio!

    I’m afraid that reading this series in order will be difficult for me. The first time around, anyway. But eventually, I’ll get them all and go back to them. Eventually. Note that I’m only two books into the series.

    I picked up a standalone from McBain last week, Death of a Nurse, because the synopsis sounded really good, a mixture of classic with contemporary material, and tossed it on top of my TBR pile.

    So on behalf of my sarcastically inclined TBR-pile, thank you so very much for these Ed McBain reviews. ‘Cause if it weren’t for them, I might have run out of mystery writers by the time the year 2050 rolled around the corner. ;)

    • I read about 30 or so completely out of sequence before I thought I should start again – definitely a one off! but I like the way you think TC – 2050 sounds like date work aiming for! Cheers matey.

  6. TracyK says:

    Every time I read one of your reviews of McBain 87th Precinct books, I want to get back to the series and read more. Such a great series… at least so far.

    • Thanks TracyK – in my own mind I always felt that the series was at its best up to the late 1970s but that it then got more variable as the books got longer but I read some of these a long time ago and completely out of sequence so look forward to getting there – mind you, it’s taking me a lot longer than anticipated even to get this far so I may have to pick up the pace as I’m not even halfway through (quite a nice thought actually …!

  7. Sergio, you’re a fine tutor of Ed McBain’s work, helping along those unfamiliar with his books or those like me who have read only a few. Indeed, as Ms. Kinberg notes, I like his writing style which in spite of being explicit and often brutal does not unsettle or put the reader off. JDM nearly had the opposite effect on me though I wouldn’t put away his book either. Thanks for this review, Sergio.

    • Thanks Prashant – the books do change with time of course and the next in the series, Jigsaw, is noticeably tougher with its use of strong language for instance – review coming soon to a Fedora near you :)

      • Indeed, that’s the first McBain novel I read and I hope I remember what I read while perusing your review. I’ll say, though, that it has an intriguing plot.

        • I hope you enjoy the review Prsashant – it is a slightly anomalous entry with its treasure hunt plot but I shall also be focusing on its rather peculiar after-life as the basis for a very strange episode of Columbo

  8. 282daniele says:

    Sergio, ho appena scritto una email. Mi puoi rispondere quando puoi? Grazie. Piero

  9. Pingback: A bumper crop: Classic crime in the blogosphere, August 2013 | Past Offences

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