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 WEDGE (1959)
“There was, of course, no such thing as a locked-door murder mystery.”
McBain makes his first great stylistic departure in this, the eight volume in his 87th Precinct series, juxtaposing two radically different cases and two completely different traditions within the mystery genre, the whole kept tightly bound together by the exertion of the titular pressure – and all taking place in a single afternoon. In fact the novel takes place in just under 4 hours in total.
It is October 1957, four months after Cotton Hawes first joined the squad, and this will be the case in which he truly makes up for the danger he put fellow detective Steve Carella in on his first case, as depicted in Killer’s Choice. Around 4.30 in the afternoon Hawes is immediately struck by the severe appearance a woman all dressed in black who walks into the precinct house asking to see Carella, who at that moment is out on a case. She refuses to leave and Hawes’ worst presentiments (‘For a moment she looked like Death personified’) are realised when the situation quickly escalates into a siege, with detectives in the 87th squadroom being held hostage. The woman is Virginia Dodge and she blames Carella for the recent death of her husband Frank in prison and has vowed revenge – brandishing a .38 caliber pistol and a bottle of nitroglycerine. As the tension grows, with Hawes, Kling, Meyer and Lietenant Byrne all trying to find a way out of their predicament, tension reaches breaking point with the shooting of file clerk Alf Miscolo, who walked into the situation by chance.
At that exact moment, from one paragraph to the next, we leave our characters dangling in suspense and switch to that most genteel, rarefied and artificial of narrative gambits – Carella is in fact out investigating an impossible crime in the traditional setting of a musty old mansion when a millionaire industrialist is found dead, an apparent suicide by hanging in a hermetically sealed room. After a brief introductory scene in which we learn that Teddy and Steve Carella are about to become parents, we catch up with Carella on the scene of the death. The old man apparently hung himself with a rope after bolting his room shut and tying the other end of the rope to the inside of the door. There is no access through windows, no secret passages, no chimney and it took three men and a crowbar to prise open the door and then cut the rope before they could gain entry.
Although it is Sam Grossman in forensics who is able to prove that the old man had been strangled before being strung up, this information doesn’t reach Carella, who none the less is unconvinced about the suicide as there seems to have been no motive for it. So he begins to interrogate the old man’s three children, all of whom stand to benefit, setting up that most classic and seemingly hackneyed of whodunit situations (but at least we know one thing – as Carella tells us, ‘The butler never did it’). Carella feels out of depth, both because of the enormous wealth of the people he is unusually having to deal with, but also because of the type of case – at one point musing disconsolately:
“What do we do now? Send a wire off to John Dickson Carr?”
The counterpoint to this old-fashioned locked room puzzle is what gives this book its unusual power and distinction – Virginia beats and humiliates the men, who put up even with shootings and pistol whippings to stop her detonating the bottle of ‘soup’ (as they call the nitro), which would kill them all and destroy half the building. As the lieutenant tells Cotton:
“Virginia Dodge has pounded a wedge into my command Cotton, and split it wide open. As long as she sits there with her wedge – that damn bottle of soup – I can’t do a thing.”
Thus the heroes of the series here become the victims and at one point they are held up by two angry women when a Puerto Rican prostitute hauled in for a serious assault allies herself briefly with Virginia against the cops. Their humiliation is vividly depicted by Hunter as we are made to feel their mounting frustration at their inability to react to the violence and goading inflicted upon them by Virginia, as she sucks them of their power and ultimately of their pride and even humanity, watching helplessly as Miscolo sinks into a coma and Meyer is beaten to a pulp. The book takes this to surprising lengths, even comparing the situation in which Carella might be sacrificed by his friends to that of the Salem trials, with Virginia though cast as a real and powerful witch. A breaking point is only reached when Teddy unexpectedly arrives to meet Steve for a celebratory dinner and is eventually recognised by Virginia, putting her and her unborn child in jeopardy – and it is Hawes at this point who finally breaks the stalemate.
The story is ultimately about the use and abuse of power, whether by the rich through their resources and connections or by unfortunates who turns to violence when they can see no other way out for themselves. But it is also a richly entertaining police procedural and an ingenious little locked room mystery – a seemingly unlikely but ultimately very successful combination.