THE CON MAN (1957) by Ed McBain

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 …

***** (3 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.

18 Responses to THE CON MAN (1957) by Ed McBain

  1. Mike Ripley says:

    I only met ‘Ed McBain’ once. He seemed a very nice guy, still enthusiastic about books and crime writing after 30+ years at the wordface.
    Which has nothing to do with anything much except this is the only way I know to tell you that the latest “Getting Away With Murder” column should now be posted on !

  2. Dear Mike, always good to hear from you! Glad to hear you’ll be at the Reading Festival – no idea if I can make it but I shall certainly try. I envy you having met the once Salvatore Lombino (us Itis have to stick together) – seems to have been, by all accounts, a very decent bloke – not enough of those about.



  3. Jerry McMaster says:

    Another clue to McBain’s true identity: Remember Kling and Claire planning their vacation? Now read VANISHING LADIES by Richard Marsten. At some point VL was obviously a follow-up to THE CON MAN. And the plot for VL was borrowed from the Evan Hunter short story, “The Wife of Riley”. It all seems so simple in retrospect, but back in the late 50’s I was totally clueless.

    • Really fascinating Jerry – I don’t think I’ve read another of the Hunter books other than those published under that name or McBain but this kind of literary archaeology is really intriguing. Thanks very much for the wonderful info.

  4. simon mordish says:

    I haven’t read “The Con Man” for many years, but yesterday my box set of “87th Precinct” DVD’s of the 1960’s TV series arrived and I watched the first 2 eps. The first was called “The Floater” but as I was watching I realised it was “The Con Man”. Although pared down for a 60 min tv slot it was very faithful as I remembered it to the book. The second ep was based on “Killers Wedge” and scripted by McBain himself, but that’s a story for another time…
    I really recommend any fan to invest in these DVDs as they are the most faithful of all adaptations of McBains works (Sorry for going slightly off topic)

    • Thanks very much for the info Simon as I hadn’t realised the box set was out yet. I’s really like to get the box as so many of the books were adapted for the show. What’s the picture quality like? The few clips that turn op online like pretty horrible

      • Curtis Burga says:

        The box set has pretty decent quality, actually. I just got it on Amazon.
        The first episode is the adaptation of this book. It’s not bad, has Robert Culp as the killer.

  5. Hank says:

    Ah yes, Teddy’s tattoo…one needs to explain to the youngsters that back in the 1950’s (heck, back in the 1980’s) most women did not have a tattoo–or if they did, you couldn’t see it.

    The plot involving the con man, however, was kind of clunky. McBain would get much better at creating the mystery at the center of each novel.

  6. Pingback: ICE (1983) by Ed McBain | Tipping My Fedora

  7. Colin says:

    I liked this one, more than most here I think. Sure the plot is a little light and the ending is a retread of the first novel, but there are nice touches too. I found the bit with the father identifying the first victim to be movingly written and also the Priscilla storyline, especially the long letter she composes, quite affecting too. Moreover, I enjoyed the building of tension for the climax.
    So, there are weaknesses in the book but the pluses outweigh them in my view.

    • Glad you liked it too – I think the initial trio really set the template and the standard. If I was a bit critical this is in that context

      • Colin says:

        Oh no, I think the criticisms/comments yourself and others made are perfectly valid. I think I just picked up more on the positive parts of the book (as I saw them anyway) and was correspondingly impressed. The sub-plot about the two confidence men was less essential for me but didn’t distract from the story overall.

        • Glad to revisit this as it has been so long since I started this challenge – just started MISCHIEF, which is the 45th in the series!

          • Colin says:

            Well, I have a wee bit of catching up to do there. Much as I’ve enjoyed the last two books, I’m taking a break from the 87th at the moment – just started a reread of The League of Frightened Men, which just didn’t grab me as much as I’ve been told it should have when I read it years ago. I’ve forgotten almost all the details and hope it works better (for me) this time.

          • I thoroughly enjoyed that one 😊

          • Colin says:

            I’m hoping I’m in a better mood for it this time and am approaching it with an open mind.

          • Makes all the difference though of course one can also feel, shall we say, more indulgent at times, which I try to monitor (not always with great success)

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