Today I continue my series of reviews of the 87th Precinct mysteries by Ed McBain (all of which are listed here). As it was published before 1960 it is also eligible under the guidelines of Bev’s 2011 Mystery Readers Challenge.
“The 87th big problem was the floater … The 87th little problem was the con man.”
The Con Man (87th Precinct series #4)
First Published: 1957
Leading players: Steve Carella, Teddy Carella, Arthur Brown, Meyer Meyer, Bert Kling, Claire Townsend, Roger Havilland
This entry in the series, the fourth, is one of contrasts as we explore the lives of our characters in major and minor keys. On the one hand, after the events of The Pusher, the highly dramatic previous entry that dealt with blackmail, drug addiction and the attempted murder of Steve Carella, we now see the 87th contend with a more mischievous type of villainy with an upswing in activity from swindlers and con artists.
“… he whispered hoarsely, “Cancel the wreath”, in an attempt at wit that was unfunny …”
On the other, Steve, fresh out of hospital, his gunshot wounds still aching when it rains, investigates two dead female bodies found floating in the river with fatal doses of arsenic in their stomachs and a small heart tattooed between the thumb and forefinger – the first with the letters MAC while the second was seemingly done in haste and in error has NAC. The contrasts in this novel are also explored in more intimate and proximate ways such as when Steve and Teddy meet for a dinner date. He decides to mix business and pleasure by visiting a tattoo artists, named ‘Charlie Chen’, who charms Teddy and who remembers the first victim coming to his shop with her handsome boyfriend. The Carellas go to a Chinese restaurant for dinner but when Teddy is accosted by a drunk it descends into a violent fight and ends with the man being arrested – Steve has defended his wife, but the intrusion of violence into their romantic evening out is a sober reminder of the dangers of his job, not long after his brush with death the preceding Christmas.
McBain’s book posits the variety of negotiations that make up everyday life as potential cons, of smaller or greater significance and thus Carella’s murderer, who preys on lovelorn maidens, and Brown’s street hustlers stealing as little as $5 from innocent passersby, provide a picture of the multiplicity of such transactions in the big city. While the murderer pretends to love women but really only wants their savings, so we see Bert Kling and his fiancée Claire lie to her school to get her exam dates shifted so that they can get away for a holiday. The point of view of the novel is an essentially romantic one, event a sentimental one (Carella’s little homily on the wonder of love at the end of book is sweet, sincere and more than a little too calorific for comfort); but to its credit it also doesn’t shy away from showing the callous disregard that the city can engender in some people.
On the whole then, despite a clever enough story, some nice dialogue and some interesting examples of the art of the con (which will be familiar to anyone who has seen The Sting or a recent episode of Hustle of its US equivalent, Leverage), this is the least of the novels so far about the 87th. The plot in particular, while neatly worked out, does feel a little bit thin and it also repeats the climax from Cop Hater by having Teddy face off against the murderer and Steve having once again to come to the rescue (it does seem a bit early in a series to already be rehashing material from previous books). On the other hand, the overall theme is intelligently explored and the book concludes with a neat little reversal as Teddy, in the gentlest way possible, cons Steve into admiring the little butterfly tattoo that she got Charlie Chen to put on her right shoulder. Sometimes we really do want to be conned the novel seems to be saying, if you have good reason to trust the person doing it that is …