THE PUSHER (1956) by Ed McBain

Today I continue my series of reviews of the 87th Precinct mysteries by Ed McBain, all of which are listed here together with links to my reviews so far. These will be updated as I progress through the entire run, which originally was published between 1956 and 2005. As the book came out before 1960, this review is also eligible under the guidelines of Bev’s 2011 Mystery Readers Challenge.

The Pusher (87th Precinct series #3)
First Published: 1956
Leading players:  Lt. Peter Byrnes, Steve Carella, Teddy Carella, Hal Willis, Roger Havilland, Meyer Meyer, Bert Kling, Dr Soames, Danny Gimp, Claire Townsend, Dick Genero

The Pusher, the third volume in the series, introduced a minor if noticeable stylistic shift in the development of the books, albeit an unintended one. Originally this volume was in fact designed to have a major impact on the ongoing saga; indeed, as it was the last of the novels that was initially contracted for by Pocket Books, it was possible that, had the series not turned out to be a success, that it could have been the end of the 87th. This may well have influenced the original intention of author Ed McBain (aka Evan Hunter) to use this book to re-assert the primacy of the squad as the ‘corporate’ hero of the series. This way individual characters could be woven in an out of the stories, sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently. How was McBain planning to emphasise this? Not to beat any further around the bush, this was the book in which he was going to kill off Steve Carella!

The more minor issue of a stylistic trait introduced here refers to the use in the opening pages of the book of the weather as a virtual and metaphoric barometer of the action, one that would persist for decades to come in the series. It is December 1956 and the weather is cold …

Winter was going to be a bitch this year.

McBain frequently begins his novels from the series describing the weather and / or the city and falls in with a certain sensuousness to his writing. Like the women he describes, which tend to be ample and Rubenesque, so the city is beautiful, sprawling and dangerous – and the weather can be just a traitorous in its seeming indifference, commenting directly or ironically on the tone of the stories. And The Pusher is a decidedly chilly one, contrasting with the blistering heat of Cop Hater which began this opening trilogy. A young Puerto Rican boy is found dead in the basement of the tenement where he lived – initially it looks like suicide as he has a cord tied round his neck but next to his body there is a syringe and it quickly emerges that he was a pusher and drug user. If he had just injected himself with heroin, why would he be suicidal? Carella is soon on the hunt for ‘Gonzo’, the pusher who has taken over the young boy’s distributions, but the story is about to get much more complicated and personal when Steve’s boss Peter Byrnes receives an anonymous phone call – the syringe found next to the boy’s body belongs to Peter’s son, who it turns out is an addict.

“I thought this was for slum kids. I thought it was for kids who came from broken homes, kids who didn’t have love. How did it happen to Larry?”

One of the outstanding aspects to the book is its depiction at close quarters of the realisation by Byrnes and his wife Harriet of how little they truly know of the life of their son Larry, who it turns out at sixteen has already been an intravenous heroin user for several months without their knowledge. The initial confrontation between father and son is powerful and convincing and in many ways shows strong evidence of the Hunter style over the normal McBain approach. Some of the later scenes are decidedly melodramatic however, such as when Harriet pulls a gun on the boy to keep him safe in his room while he goes through withdrawal and the family doctor administers regular doses of methadone. These domestic scenes alternate with the villain’s plot to further entrap Larry in the death, leading to two further murders. There is also much humour in this novel, such as the scene in which Carella’s attempt to find the pusher while undercover in undone when a beat cop spots his holster gun and spoils everything. In another sequence a junkie is given the third degree by the sadistic Roger Havilland, not realising that he is making matters worse by saying that his name is ‘Ernest Hemingway’, which just further infuriates the 87th bull – until it turns out it really is his name but that he has no idea that it also belongs to a well-known writer. His response, on finding this out, is to ask if he could sue the author for using his name! This provides a welcome tonic to the book’s dark subject matter.

The story comes to an abrupt pause when Carella’s search for the mysterious pusher nicknamed ‘Gonzo’ through a clever bit of misdirection leads to a shocking conclusion with the detective being shot three times in the chest. Set during the week leading up to Christmas, McBain had intended to kill off Carella at the height of the season and originally ended the novel as follows, as reproduced in Otto Penzler’s 1978 book, The Great Detectives:

“Outside the hospital the church bells tolled.
It was Christmas day, and all was right with the world.
But Steve Carella was dead.”

McBain dutifully sent off his manuscript to his editor at Pocket Books, to be told that he had really misunderstood just how important the Carella character already was to the series and that he really must revise it. It is no spoiler to say that he did as the character would go on to appear in over forty of the books in the series as it would progress through the years.

The book is not as closely plotted as its two predecessors, and one imagines that the shock finale was intended to take up the slack to some extent. But even with that aspect removed, as much as for what appears in this novel as for what doesn’t, this is a crucial volume in the development of the series – not least because it would also change the involvement of informant Danny Gimp, whose affection for Carella not only directly leads to the cracking of the case but also sees a new measure of respect grow between the two men. And it would also establish a particular bond between Byrnes and Carella – the 87th books remain a series about an entire squad, but Carella was established here for now, and for always, as first among equal.

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

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

21 Responses to THE PUSHER (1956) by Ed McBain

  1. J F Norris says:

    Well done! I’ve always liked the artwork on the Perma Book covers on McBain’s novels. So seamy, so edgy. Crime in the 87th precinct ain’t pretty.

    Proofreading Squad reporting for duty, sir. You might want to fix the bold title after your intro paragraph.

    • Thanks John – their coverwork was just terrific wasn’t it? Can’t get enough of them. Planning on reviewing Stark’s Parker series soon and am really looking forward to posting some of those covers!

      (And thanks also for the proofreading – much appreciated – always useful to stay humble with a few doh! moments every day …)

  2. Ela says:

    Your comment about McBain’s description of the weather or the city reminds me of a parody (can’t remember by whom) in which the opening paragraphs likened the city to a woman which ended “but you wish she’d use deodorant and take a bath, because she stinks…”

    I must try one of the 87th precinct novels.

    • Nice one Ela! McBain usually goes for fairly ironic effect but sometimes his books can be really hilarious – I tend to recommend the first three dozen or so that he published (the excellent Blood Relatives is usually my notional cutting off point) as they were shorter, and pithier. I am curious to see, as I progress through the series chronologically, to see if this impression will vary at all.

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  7. Vasudeva says:

    A gorgeous review . I read the novel in around 1975. I bought the book in a local store as I was drenched by the prose- poetic first line that winter came in like an anarchist with a bomb . I read almost ten in a row. I do consider The Pusher is one of Ed Mcbain’s greatest novels, for it is more human . It is more sociological than any of his other novels .

  8. Hank says:

    It’s funny, my attitude towards these novels shifts when I look at them again. What I remembered about “The Pusher” was the Larry Byrnes plot–as with many stories that once could be considered edgy and perhaps ahead of their time, later only came off as dated. And while the melodrama you mention remains fairly hokey, you pointed out something that I had overlooked–that the events of this novel created and underscored the tangible bond between Carella and Byrnes.

    More to the point, however–in the past week or so, I’ve been enjoying these musty paperbacks as I’ve perused them (and this blog) to an extent that I find it hard to truly knock any of them–when I first discovered them many years ago, I devoured each of the mysteries like candy. However, what has resonated about these novels aren’t the crimes or even the investigations, but the characters–their various arcs and relationships.

    As a result, going back and reading “The Pusher” (some sources call it simply “Pusher) after reading the rest of the series is sort of like looking through the other end of the binoculars. Larry Byrnes, a major character in the novel, is ultimately not much more than a footnote in the grand scheme of the McBain universe, and the ultimate fate of “Gonzo” is quickly forgotten, but three of Carella’s major relationships as established in this novel–with his superior (Byrnes), his wife (Teddy), and his, er, associate (Danny)–would endure through McBain’s writing for the next half-century.

    • The time will come Hank when I look forward to re-reading these – at the moment, having sait myself this task, I feel I have to persevere to the end and then, like you, start again to dip in and out. You are right though – the plot about Larry is a minor one but serves as a catalyst and certainly, if you haven’t read it, then the ongoing friendship with Danny Gimp is harder to fathom though at least the special bond with the Lieutenant is re-explained in mre detail in later volumes.

  9. Colin says:

    Just finished this and thought I’d drop by and say so. I got a real kick out of this one, the weather description (especially at the beginning) is wonderful and the book is very well-written.

    Not much to add to what you and others have already said here, but I do want to state that I’m delighted McBain decided to revise his original ending – my edition has the afterword explaining how it came about and was ultimately altered. Apart from the fact Carella is the hero of the series, the ending we get has a lovely It’s a Wonderful Life feel to it with Byrnes making his way through the city as Christmas is arriving.

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