The Alphabet of Crime community meme over at the Mysteries in Paradise blog this week reaches the letter K. My contribution this week is made up of a quartet of the 87th Precinct mysteries by Ed McBain published before 1960 so as to also be eligible under the guidelines of Bev’s 2011 Mystery Readers Challenge. Today’s book is …
KILLER’S CHOICE (1957)
“Like on Dragnet?”
“Better than Dragnet” Kling said, modestly.
This entry, the fifth in the series, made two significant adjustments to the roster of characters courtesy of an appropriately dramatic departure and a major new addition to the team of detectives.
Set in June 1957, it follows two murder cases which criss-cross and ironically overlap but which are otherwise completely distinct and separate. Annie Boone is found shot dead inside the liquor store where she worked as a cashier, covered in alcohol and shards of glass in what appears to have been part of a frenzied but inexplicable destruction of the stock. Indeed the boss seems sorrier about the loss of his merchandise than of his faithful employee. That same night one of the 87th precinct’s toughest detectives, the violent and cynical Roger Havilland, sees a dazed young man sitting on the sidewalk outside a shop. Uncharacteristically he actually tries to help, but is repaid by a violent shove through the shop’s plate glass window. The detective’s carotid artery is severed by a shard of glass and bleeds to death while his assailant makes a fast getaway. The man had in fact just attempted to rob the shop and had been shot in the shoulder by the barely conscious proprietor as he escaped.
The exit of Havilland, a once decent cop turned into a corrupt egotists by the cruelty of criminal violence, overlaps with the introduction of Cotton Hawes, a seemingly cool and intelligent but also somewhat arrogant detective who transferred that same day over from the more genteel 30th precinct. Hawes initially makes a poor impression on his colleagues and things don’t improve when he makes a colossal blunder which almost costs detective Steve Carella his life. It is typical of the novel’s essentially humanist approach that we see the reactions to Hawes’ mistake – he knocked on the apartment door of the man suspected of killing Havilland so giving him warning of their presence and the time to shoot at the detectives and make his getaway – not through a senior reprimand or recriminations from colleagues but less formally and dramatically, with a series of scenes in which we see the men discuss the event with their friends and families after hours.
At the core of the book is a decent little whodunit but what emerges most strongly by the end is a multi-faceted, even prismatic, portrait of the victim. A young woman, a divorcee juggling work pressures as well as a young daughter and her own mother, she is presented in an admirably complex fashion as an ambiguous, elusive yet fascinating character. Like the central figure of Laura in Vera Caspary’s eponymous novel, she is seen through the eyes of a wide variety of friends and acquaintances, all of whom only highlight certain parts of her personality, homing only on those features that are most important to them.
What emerges therefore is a highly contradictory figure: an intellectual interested in ballet and literature to one but a drunkard to another; a fun but not especially bright daughter to her mother but an intellectual heavyweight to her ex-husband; a bar-room lush with an interest in a young man recovering from an accident that has left him blind and a pool-shark’s moll. A prim and proper girlfriend to one man and a home-wrecking mistress of a married man to another. In this sense the initially unclear meaning of the book’s title is eventually revealed to refer to the decision made by the murderer to extinguish one of the woman’s seemingly many lives, not caring about the impact it would have on all the others and the people it touched. It’s a theme that is particularly well-suited to a cycle of novels which itself offers not one but multiple perspectives on the investigative process.
Tomorrow this brief look at some of the cases of the 87th Precinct continues with Killer’s Payoff.