LADY KILLER (1958) 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.

“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.

***** (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.

11 Responses to LADY KILLER (1958) by Ed McBain

  1. Patrick says:

    This is another excellent review of a McBain novel, which I have yet to read. Your review points out that there’s a lot more to the series than I’ve assumed thus far. Actually, now that I think of it, I remember coming across several McBains in my grandparents’ garage… which they promptly gave away to someone, along with a bunch of other books…

  2. Hi Patrick – I think there is a lot of variety to the series and at some point, perhaps around the halfway mark, I’ll try and summarise them in a little more detail to provide a better overall picture. I am conscious that a lot of the freshness will have been superseded by the ubiquity of the TV police procedural (and I say this as a fan of the TV genre) so thanks for the comments as I hope, assuming I ever get through them all, that this might be genuinely useful to prospective readers, and preexisting fans out there!

  3. Sergio, your reviews of this series are inspiring me to try it out – would I be correct in saying that I would get the most out of them by reading them in order, or can I dip in and out? They’re not the easiest books to find…

    • Hello mate, it used to be that second hand bookshops were stuffed with copies of Ed McBain mysteries! You can just pick these up at any point with just a few potential things being spoiled but nothing too important really. As far as I’m concerned, the main issue in deciding which to read in chronological terms is simply that they were quite short books, usually under 200 pages, up to about 1977; with the publication of LONG TIME NO SEE, the books got progressively longer and these tend to be less successful. That is a big generalisation though, as it varies from one volume to the next. If you can, start with a couple of entries from the first three dozen or so volumes the series – if you like those, then you may enjoy the rest whereas one of the later ones is more likely to be work less well. But McBain’s stuff is always interesting – to my mind he never wrote an out and out stinker as he was too good a craftsman for that – would be fascinated to know what you think.



  4. Dhiraj says:

    I liked your blog and have included you in my blogroll. Thanks for great posts.

  5. Pingback: ‘TIL DEATH (1959) by Ed McBain | Tipping My Fedora

  6. Colin says:

    Breezed through this book in just over two days – and that’s pretty pacy considering how slow I tend to read most of the time.
    It was fun overall and I liked the procedural details – the sketch artist stuff was very good indeed – as well as the character development, all nicely done and leaves you feeling… I don’t know, kind of comfortable.
    Having said that, I did find the ending and reveal a bit of a letdown, real Scooby Doo stuff there!

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