K is for … KILLER’S PAYOFF (1958) by Ed McBain

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 …


“You can carry deduction only so far”

This novel continues directly from Killer’s Choice, the previous book in the series, and begins about 10 days later. It includes some of the same characters from that novel and in fact even reveals the name of the murderer in passing, so the two should definitely be read in sequence if possible. It is still June 1957 but the balmy weather has turned to rain and one evening, in the style of a 1930s gangster hit, a man is gunned down from a passing car. But Sy Kramer isn’t shot with a tommy gun – rather, it’s a hunting rifle and he wasn’t a mobster but a blackmailer, albeit a prosperous one living the high life. And now it’s up to detectives Kling, Carella and Hawes to find out which of his victims decided to turn the tables and become a predator.

As with the previous novel we are presented with a mysterious shooting and a small cast of suspects to choose from, very much in the style of the traditional whodunit. And once again what helps ring the changes is the use of reproductions of official documents from the investigation to give the story the strong tang of verisimilitude including police booking slips and prison release forms. In this book we also find out a bit more about new squad members Hawes – specifically his rakish way with the ladies as he moves through a succession of one-night stands, falling instantly in love with the beautiful women he meets on the job, and then falling out of love with them again almost as quickly. This could be a pretty unpleasant portrait of a highly malajusted Lothario or an obsessive sexual predator were it not for Hawes’ good humour and for the fact that the women he meets seem to understand exactly what he is like and in fact share his interest in the shortest of short-term relationships.

Joining the team in this installment is Arthur Brown, the 87th most prominent black officer, who here is assigned to monitor the phone calls of one of Kramer’s victims: the curvaceous wife of a prominent politician who had been paying to keep her past as a glamour model out of the news and suppress the cheesecake photos she took before she got married. This does little for Brown’s characteristic impatience however as he spends days on the job bemoaning his lot while the other detectives are also kept busy with a succession of interviews and fact-checking exercises that strike most of them as being largely unnecessary and which they regularly have to apologise for.

This is typical of  both the book’s realistic approach to investigative routine and to the depiction of the job found in the series as a whole. Indeed much of the humour – and the tone is essentially light and comedic – derives from the sheer mundane level of the fact-checking and the tracking down of potential suspects undertaken as the detectives have to deal with the most banal of routine assignments, interviewing practically anyone who recently had contact with Kramer. A particular highlight comes when Hawes goes to interview Kramer’s girlfriend – she mistakes him for a plumber and he even ends up mending her shower – before taking her out for the evening! In a characteristic touch, when Hawes is later caught off-guard in two dramatic sequences this is seen in ironic terms – in the first instance, while trying to apprehend someone who has been tailing him, he is badly beaten and cruelly hit below the belt (karmic retribution perhaps for his all his romantic extra-curricular activities?), and yet, though paralysed with pain, all he can do is think of jokes at his own expense. The second comes in the climax to the case, where he plays a hunch and nearly gets himself killed in the process.

The characterisation isn’t quite as strong as in Killer’s Choice perhaps but this entry offers a surprisingly complex plot that is logically worked out while juggling, with seemingly effortless dexterity, several subsidiary narrative threads as the squad tries to track down Kramer’s marks and his most recent activities, including a hunting trip which may hold the key to his demise. The resolution to the crime is ingenious and it’s hard to imagine that many readers will be able to guess the identity of the murderer.

Tomorrow this brief look at some of the cases of the 87th Precinct continues with Killer’s Wedge.

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

This entry was posted in 87th Precinct, Crime Fiction Alphabet, Ed McBain, Police procedural, Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge 2011. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to K is for … KILLER’S PAYOFF (1958) by Ed McBain

  1. Pingback: K is for … KILLER’S CHOICE (1958) by Ed McBain | Tipping My Fedora

  2. Pingback: The 87th Precinct mysteries by Ed McBain | Tipping My Fedora

  3. Pingback: LADY KILLER (1958) by Ed McBain | Tipping My Fedora

  4. Hank says:

    One of the stronger early McBain novels, anchored by a solid mystery and plotting. It also strikes me that I’ve seen TV show episodes which mirrored this plot somewhat (dead blackmailer, multiple suspects) so I’m also mildly surprised that McBain apparently never sold this story to Hollywood.

    As McBain established Hawes in these early novels as the oversexed detective in the 87th, I wonder if this is why the character never evolved into more of a stronger character–in the post-sexual revolution era, even McBain apparently found Hawes’ trysts boring.

    Another vivid memory I have of this novel is how, once I had worked my way through enough of the 87th novels to where it was becoming problematic to find copies of those titles that I had not yet read, “Killer’s Payoff” was one of the first titles I had to track down using actual legwork, locating a copy at the Cape Coral (FL) Public Library. Only one catch–it was a large print edition. A year or two later, I did find a used copy of the Signet paperback pictured above; I have it next to me here as I type this. However, given my current eyesight, part of me wishes that I had figured out a way to keep that large-print edition–no large-print copy is currently listed in the online Lee County Library System. (The North Fort Myers branch does have a paperback copy!)

    • I’m with you Hank – I keep having to up the prescription on my reading glasses too! It is really worthy consideing why Hawes faded away (comparatively), especially given the McBain interest in sex that becomes so much more prevalent in later volumes. Maybe (ahem) he just couldn’t find a way to deepend the character sufficiently, as you say. I envy you having the signey edition – I just have the UK penguin paperback, which is sturdy but a bit dull …

      • Hank says:

        It’s nice to see how the internet has made McBain’s novels more accessible than ever–one can even download “Killer’s Payoff” as an unabridged audiobook. (And to think it literally took me years to track down a copy of “The Empty Hours”)

        The other day, I popped into a couple of local used bookstores to see which McBain titles they had on hand. It was disheartening; the smaller store had a couple of mid-90’s Matthew Hope paperbacks (here on the west coast of Florida, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Hope novels enjoyed inflated sales) and the larger store had a single hardcover copy of “The Big Bad City”. As prolific as McBain was, without any new titles to prompt sales of older titles, his entire body of work just seemed to mostly vanish from store shelves upon his death. Again–you’ve got to love the internet; some of the vintage hardcovers of McBain titles are priced quite reasonably and ready to ship. (Others are apparently quite scarce–notably “Ax” and “The Heckler”)

        • I am not one for audio books though I love full-cast radio drama and consume a lot of those as the BBC produces an amazing variety of content for its radio channels. I had no idea such titles were becoming scarcer – when Amazon took over reprinting the series i remember this giving it a real boost (made a huge different to my blog when i did a guest post for them on McBain, I’ll tell you that). But I suppose their emphasis is going to be on ebooks rather than physical copies – what a shame.

          • Hank says:

            Amazon apparently didn’t take it personally when, in “Fat Ollie’s Book”, McBain used Fat Ollie (as was his habit) to criticize Amazon’s policy of allowing customers to post negative reviews.

            I could kind of understand McBain’s point, although, from the perspective of a consumer, I disagree with it. More to the point–continuing with “Killer’s Payoff” as an example, the overwhelming majority of reviews are positive, receiving an overall rating of 4.2 out of 5 (based on 44 reviews) which is pretty remarkable for a novel published as a paperback fifty-seven years ago.

          • That is nice – though, really, as you say, for an author who has been out fo the limelight for a decade now, I just can’t imagine anyone taking the time to review it unless they liked it, can you? I mean, it is hardly the entry in the series that is going to inflame passions of discord, right? Not read the Fatt Ollie tome yet but really look forward to it.

  5. Pingback: Hark! The 87th Precinct podcast | Tipping My Fedora

  6. Colin says:

    I liked this, maybe not as much as its immediate predecessor but it was a fast and enjoyable read. I was thinking it was becoming a bit repetitious with the suspects being interviewed and telling the same story again and again but, seeing how the solution panned out, it had to be that way and I ended up quite appreciating McBain’s construction under the circumstances. This is the first time I noticed longer stretches taking place outside of the city, and I kind of missed the more familiar surroundings.

  7. Pingback: Ranking the 87th Precinct Mysteries | Tipping My Fedora

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