‘TIL DEATH (1959) by Ed McBain

Today I continue my series of reviews of the 87th Precinct mysteries by Ed McBain (all of which are listed here). It is also the last covering those published before 1960, so it is eligible under the guidelines of Bev’s 2011 Mystery Readers Challenge.

“By one-thirty that bright Sunday afternoon, Antonio Carella was ready to shoot his wife, strange his son, disown his daughter, and call off the whole damn wedding.”

‘Til Death (87th Precinct series #9)
First Published: 1959
Leading players: Steve Carella, Cotton Hawes, Bert Kling, Teddy Carella, Meyer Meyer, Bob O’Brien

Ed McBain (aka Evan Hunter) experimented with a variety of approaches in his series of 87th Precinct police procedural and here we have one that combines the usual murder and mayhem with elements of what might best be described as a ‘detective’s day off’, showing the squad in a more domestic light, away from the office – at a wedding in fact. In Killer’s Wedge, set during just four hours the previous October, we learned that Steve and Teddy Carella were due to have their first baby. It is now 22 June 1959 and she is about ready to pop – and in his own way, so is Steve … He loves her more than ever, but is none the less missing his old life, especially their conjugal ‘rights’ (sic). Lying in bed on this fateful Sunday morning (the novel is all set on this one day), he looks at Teddy as doubtless many husbands might, considering the big change they are going through:

“Really, darling, he thought, you do look like a mountain … A very beautiful mountain, to be sure, but a mountain nonetheless. I wish I were a mountain climber.”

This slightly salacious train of thought is interrupted when Steve receives a phone call. His sister Angela is getting married later that day, but all is not well – the groom, Tommy Giordano, has just had a nasty shock and asks Steve to come round to his flat because that morning on his door step he found a box –  containing a dead but still poisonous black widow spider. Steve decides not to take any chances with his brother-in-law-to-be and asks off-duty friends from the 87th Cotton and Kling to form an unofficial protection detail at the wedding while also getting those still on duty, such as Meyer and the tragically unlucky Bob O’Brien, to try to find out who might hold a grudge against Tommy. Initial clues seem to point to a man he knew while fighting in Korea who blamed him (unfairly)  for the death of a fellow soldier and was eventually sent home suffering ‘shell shock’.

“What’s the picture anyway?”
“It’s an old one,” Claire said, “but I think you’ll enjoy it.”
“What is it?”
Dragnet,” she answered.

This being a story set on a Sunday, we get to spend time with the detectives and their extended families – along with the Carella clan (mother, father, sister etc.) there is Kling and his girlfriend Claire (who gets in one of the series’ last references to the Dragnet TV show) and Cotton and his current innamorata, Christine Maxwell, the widowed bookshop owner who he first met in Lady Killer and who is not happy about suddenly having to go to a wedding – and decides to make him suffer, just a little bit, by being a bit of a flirt at the reception. Then there is the beautiful Teddy who, excluded a little by being a deaf-mute and by her pregnancy, gets a little pang of jealousy when Steve is accosted on the dance floor by an old flame after the wedding.

As long as the book focuses on various sentimental entanglements and comic bits of business – like Cotton and Bert pretending to be showbiz agents, Steve getting asked for advice from the bride and groom about the what to do on the wedding night and Meyer and O’Brien’s long trek through a sleepy neighbourhood looking for a man carrying a trombone case – the books works extremely well and provides a refreshing change of pace. It is rather disappointing though when quite quickly the mystery elements starts to predominate. The car taking Tommy to the church is sabotaged, Angela is briefly and unwillingly taken on a joyride by her ex-boyfriend, someone with a rifle starts taking potshots outside the photographer’s and eventually one of the guests is murdered during the reception in papa Carella’s back garden. None of this is particularly plausible and turns out to be very thinly plotted indeed.

While plenty of jeopardy is engineered – most notably a vicious catfight between one of the many voluptuous blondes that populate the McBain universe and Cotton, here made to pain exorbitantly for his roguish ways – it never really convinces. Though having said that, McBain, along with some choice humour, also has one nice moment which allows Steve to consider the strange juxtaposition of marriage and police work in terms of his own changing domestic life – it is sentimental, a typical trait of the author perhaps, but it also rings true, also typical:

Teddy, sitting out there, with a baby inside her, creating with no effort, creating by nature, is accomplishing more than I’ll accomplish in fifty years of police work.

This is in every sense the slimmest and briefest of the books in the series thus far and certainly the least successful of the first 10 McBain books reviewed here thus far; entertaining in parts, but unable to bring its constituent elements into a cohesive whole once the crime elements are introduced. It’s a shame really that the boys couldn’t have had a real day off …

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

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

17 Responses to ‘TIL DEATH (1959) by Ed McBain

  1. Patrick says:

    I distinctly remember this was one of the books in my grandparents’ garage. I saw the plot summary, thought “No Thanks” and chose not to save it from being given away to somebody else. (I had last call on all the books before they were given away.) I don’t remember any of the other titles that were in the box, but there were at least three McBain’s. I can now feel not-so-guilty; it sounds like this wouldn’t make the best starting point for a newcomer to the series.

  2. Hi Patrick – this would absolutely not be the place to start – I think Symons singles it out in ‘Bloody Murder’ as one of the weaker books though also as one of the funniest – it is most enjoyable if you are conversant with the series, certainly not as a stand-alone. On re-reading it I found it even weaker than I remembered actually in terms of plotting, but it has its compensations if you’re a fan, let’s put it that way!

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  5. Hank says:

    I’ve not read this one in years, and I’m vague on its exact details, but in terms of what I do remember, this review sounds about right. While I usually appreciate it when McBain gets experimental–and clearly he was really becoming comfortable with his cast of characters–but the most memorable aspect of this attempt to expand Carella’s universe would come in a subsequent novel, decades later (was it “Widows”?) when his sister Angela again appears.

  6. Hank says:

    “…I haven’t even spoken to a priest since…when did she get married? Angela? When was her wedding?”

    Teddy’s fingers moved: The day the twins were born.

    “Almost eleven years ago,” Carella said, and nodded. “That’s the last time I had anything to do with a priest. Eleven years ago.”

    He looked at his wife. A great many things had happened in those eleven years. Sometimes time seemed elastic to him, a concept that could be bent at will, twisted to fit ever-changing needs. Who was to say the twins were not now thirty years old, rather than eleven? Who was to say that he and Teddy were still not the young marrieds they’d been back then? Time. A concept as confusing to Carella as was that of…well, God.

    –“Vespers” (1990)

    • That is a fantastic quote Hank – very funny, very sweet. McBain really did like to have his cake and eat it (the twins never did get any older, did they?). Thanks very much. I’ve not read that one (won’t get to it until next year at my current pace)

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  10. Colin says:

    I’ve just finished reading this – it took me just over two days but I wasn’t all that impressed. I’m essentially in agreement with you about its relative weakness, compared to those that precede it anyway. Sure it’s short and snappy but it simply doesn’t work very well.
    I reckon you’re spot on about the plot being rather weak and just barely passable but the character sketches and interactions do indeed raise it and help keep it all afloat.
    On to King’s Ransom next…

    • Given the need to publish three of these a year and all the other stuff Mcbain / Hunter was puttign out at a time, inevitably entries in the series that went outside the more standard formula were probably always a bit more prone to fail. In this case it could have worked but the controied plot is i think just too obvious as well as being somewhat thin. If there had been no criminal element at all i would have been much happier (but I suspect the publishers would have balked). I think you will be on much more solid ground with KING’S RANSOM!

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