The 87th Precinct mysteries by Ed McBain

Evan Hunter (aka Ed McBain)

The Alphabet of Crime community meme over at the Mysteries in Paradise blog this week reached the letter K. My contributions this week have been four of the 87th Precinct mysteries by Ed McBain with titles starting with the letter K. Why four? There were just too many good ones to choose from is one answer – another is that actually this is all the fault of the Puzzledoctor! In an exchange over at his fine blog we discussed potential titles that might fit the letter K, L and M as part of the Alphabet of Crime meme, particularly from the hard-boiled and police procedural categories of which I am a particular fan. Batting titles to and fro, I was suddenly struck by quite how many of Ed McBain’s books from the 87th Precinct series start with the letter K – and, as I have them all, I thought I would try something different this week. I would blog on four of the novels, all published between 1958 and 1959, to explore quite how varied the series could be but choosing them also so that I could submit all of them towards my pre-1960 Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge currently running over at Bev’s Block. To go directly to those reviews, please click on the following links:

Killer’s Choice
Killer’s Payoff
Killer’s Wedge
King’s Ransom

This post however is by way of an introduction to Ed McBain and his 87th Precinct series, which consist of 55 volumes – the complete list is given at the bottom of this blog entry and as I review more in the series I will update it with links to the relevant blog entries. Ed McBain is the best-known pseudonym of Evan Hunter (1926-2005), the author who came to prominence with The Blackboard Jungle, his galvanising novel about teenage crime in an inner city school. Hunter was actually born Salvatore Albert Lombino but changed his name in 1952 feeling that he wouldn’t manage to get published under his original Italian name. Hunter would go on to write well over 100 books and some 2 dozen scripts for film and TV, most notably The Birds (1963) for Alfred Hitchcock. He would later write a brief memoir about their collaboration, Me and Hitch (1997). Hunter used several pseudonyms during the 1950s including Richard Marsten, Hunt Collins and Curt Cannon (as well as Candyland, a ‘collaboration’ between Hunter and McBain published in 2000) but his best and most chameleon-like efforts were all published as McBain in the 87th Precinct series.

Mr McBain, I presume?

The police procedural, already established through the works of Georges Simenon, Lawrence Treat and Hilary Waugh came into its own in the 1950s through the success of Dragnet starring Jack Webb, first on radio (1949-57) and then on TV (1951-59). This had a measurable impact on the McBain stories and Dragnet is in fact mentioned in several of the novels – in Killer’s Wedge Carella he says to himself at one point, ‘Now if Joe Friday were here …’. McBain deployed the same basic format but reacted against the TV show’s flat ‘Just the facts’ style to instead fully exploit the huge variety of stories that could be told using the squad as a corporate character. Some of the books are whodunits inspired by Agatha Christie (Cop Hater), others comedies verging on farce (Fuzz), some (featuring arch-villain ‘The Deaf Man’) are Westlake-like capers, others are religious allegories (the short story ‘And All Through the House’) and political satires (Hail to the Chief) and some even touch on the supernatural (Ghosts). There are also locked room mysteries (Killer’s Wedge) and stories of psychological suspense (Blood Relatives) and one in which the squad plays only a subsidiary role in a first-person tale of a seemingly perfect crime (He Who Hesitates).

The main characters are Steve Carella, modeled on Hunter himself, and his deaf-mute wife Teddy; Bert Kling, who has a tragic love-life; red-haired ladies man Cotton Hawes and ultra-patient Jewish detective Meyer Meyer, both of whose fathers thought it amusing to saddle their sons with a comic first names; sadists such as Roger Havilland and Andy Parker; racist Fat Ollie Weeks; coffee-maker extraordinaire Alf Miscolo; pathologist Sam Grossman; and many more besides. Hunter had hoped to write a concluding novel, to be entitled Exit, but the struggle with laryngeal cancer which he described in his memoir Let’s Talk: A Story of Love (2005), and which  would eventually kill the author, made it impossible to go through with his idea. None the less there is a large and impressive body of work left behind for us to discuss and enjoy – a fine legacy. For more information on Hunter, McBain and the whole gang at the 87th, visit the author’s official website at:

Cop Hater (1956)
The Mugger (1956)
The Pusher (1956)
The Con Man (1957)
Killer’s Choice (1957)
Killer’s Payoff (1958)
Lady Killer (1958)
Killer’s Wedge (1959)
’til Death (1959)
King’s Ransom (1959)
Give the Boys a Great Big Hand (1960)
The Heckler (1960)
See Them Die (1960)
Lady, Lady I Did It (1961)
The Empty Hours (1962) [comprising three novellas]
Like Love (1962)
Ten Plus One (1963)
Ax (1964)
He Who Hesitates (1964)
Doll (1965)
80 Million Eyes (1966)
Fuzz (1968)
Shotgun (1969)
Jigsaw (1970)
Hail, Hail the Gang’s All Here (1971)
Let’s Hear It for the Deaf Man (1972)
Sadie When She Died (1972)
Hail to the Chief (1973)
Bread (1974)
Blood Relatives (1975)
So Long as You Both Shall Live (1976)
Long Time No See (1977)
Calypso (1979)
Ghosts (1980)
Heat (1981)
Ice (1983)
Lightning (1984)
Eight Black Horses (1985)
Poison (1987)
Tricks (1987)
The Last Best Hope (1988) [cross-over novel featuring Hunter’s Matthew Hope character]
Lullaby (1989)
Vespers (1990)
Widows (1991)
Kiss (1992)
Mischief (1993)
Romance (1995)
Nocturne (1997)
The Big Bad City (1999)
The Last Dance (2000)
Money, Money, Money (2001)
Fat Ollie’s Book (2002)
The Frumious Bandersnatch (2003)
Hark! (2004)
Fiddlers (2005)

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

4 Responses to The 87th Precinct mysteries by Ed McBain

  1. puzzledoctor says:

    I’ve read a couple of these and enjoyed them, although they didn’t stick in the memory particularly. Any particular highlights that I should look out for? Sounds like the locked room Killer’s Wedge would be my best start point.

  2. Hiya – I think KILLER’S WEDGE is one that you would really enjoy for the John Dickson Carr references obviously, but most of them offer decent puzzles – The first two, COP HATER and THE MUGGER, are an excellent start and beyond the ones I’ve blogged on, I particularly recommend SADIE WHEN SHE DIED and BLOOD RELATIVES from the later ones and which i hope to get to soon though I suspect there are far fewer McBain fans out there than there used to be, especially if the comments on my blog are anything to go by. Julian Symons always reckoned that the shorter length works are better than the longer ones, which I think is basically true but does tend to make them feel a bit more disposable perhaps and less individually memorable. Personally I’m a great fan but there is no denying that TV has largely taken the place of this kind of book today as they can feel to small to make an individual impact. I think the ones I mentioned here are particularly noteworthy though.

  3. David says:

    I have read the entire series (in order) and enjoyed them immensely. Since these were published over a 50 year period some are stronger than others but the overall feel you have for the detectives of the 87th cannot be beat by anything available today. Unless, of course, you read C J box or Michael Connelly or Lee Child or ??

    Enjoy them all. You will not be disappointed 🙂

    • Hello David, thanks for reading and for your comments. I plan on re-reading them all in as close to publication order as I can manage. Which are the volumes that stand out for you?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s