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.
“I will kill The Lady tonight at 8. What can you do about it?”
Lady Killer (87th Precinct series #7)
First Published: 1958
Leading players: Steve Carella, Lieutenant Byrnes, Cotton Hawes, Meyer Meyer, Dave Murchison, Sam Grossman, Fats Donner
The excitement within him was contradictory. He wanted to elude them, but at the same time he relished the idea of a chase, a desperate gun battle, the culminating scene of a carefully planned murder.
As the years went by McBain experimented with a variety of approaches to the police procedural – in this particular case we are presented with an investigation that all takes place on a single day. To be more precise, it all takes place in the half a day between 8 in the morning and 8 in the evening on the baking hot Wednesday of 24th July 1957, a month after the end of the previous book in the series, Killer’s Payoff. An anonymous note made from letters cut of a newspaper is delivered to the squad by a young boy, announcing the intention to kill ‘The Lady’ at 8PM that evening. It could be a crank of course, but the squad can’t take the risk so the men try to find the delivery boy, find out where the paper used for the letter was purchased, which newspaper the letters came from and they get nowhere – but the murderer’s own ego eventually gets in the way. For the same reason that he sent the letter in the first place, the prospective murderer takes out surveillance on the squad with a pair of binoculars. Carella, Meyer and Hawes see him looking at them from a spot in the park opposite the squad room and the latter almost apprehends him after a pursuit in the park that also includes one of the series’ last references to the iconic Dragnet TV show, which NBC would soon be removing from the airwaves to be replaced with, well, actually … a show based on McBain’s books entitled 87th Precinct. For a fascinating look at how that show came on air and how it panned out during its one and only full season, you should visit Stephen Bowie’s authoritative Classic TV History blog here.
Play it easy. Sprinkle the salt on the bird’s tail, and if the bastard tries to run, clobber him or shoot him, but play it easy, slow and easy, play it like a “Dragnet” cop, with all the time on the world, about to interrogate the slowest talker in the United States.
Anyway, the man gets away, but Hawes gets a look at him so, together with the hapless delivery boy so eventually found (much to his mother’s eventual displeasure), they are thus able to put together a fair likeness of the man who had the note delivered, allowing McBain to give us a long disquisition on the art of the police sketch artist, chalking up another forensic first for the books with a series of drawings showing how the composite develops from sketch to sketch – there is something delightfully artisanal about the approach here, before the more accurate but less personal identikit and facial recognition software took over.
It has to be admitted that this is probably the most thinly plotted of the novels up to this point in the series as the boys of the 87th chase and lose the elusive ‘John Smith’ and follow a number of false leads. On the other hand, it is also the one that for the first time really approached a style reminiscent of George Simenon’s celebrated procedurals, with the emphasis more on personalities and psychology rather than plot or action. This is in fact a book about friendship – the man who sent the note really does intend to commit a murder but he also wants to be stopped as he cares deeply about the person he is threatening to kill. This is matched by the depiction of the developing friendship between Carella, first amongst equals in the squad, and Hawes who is still learning the ropes after transferring from the ritzy 30th precinct. In fact what keeps the novel buoyant, given that plot is pretty slight, are the myriad of character touches amongst several comic interludes and little personal vignettes, most notably in Cotton’s relentless adventures with the ‘fair sex’. In this book he manages to encounter a number of ladies who are eager to know him better – there is the bookshop owner who, though only in her mid thirties, has been a war widow all her adult life; the jazz chanteuse with loose morals and a fondness for risqué lyrics; the neighbourhood ‘plane jane’ whose prominent bosom proves to be a real distraction for the ardent red-headed detective; even the madam at one of the bordellos on ‘La Via de Putas’ finds him irresistible. And then there are the moments of stillness and quiet in which Cotton and Carella take a breather and consolidate their new friendship.
The solution, when it comes, is fair enough though based on a fairly ridiculous disguise while readers versed in a little rudimentary Italian should be able to figure out who ‘The Lady’ is well before McBain chooses to reveal his hand. So not the best so far for the 87th, but a fascinating development in the series none the less.