Today I continue my reviews of the 87th Precinct mysteries by Ed McBain, all of which are listed here. This page will be updated as I progress through the entire run, which originally was published between 1956 and 2005.
Margaret Androvich was a nineteen-year-old blonde who, in the hands of our more skilful novelists, would have been described as willowy. That is to say, she was skinny.
Give the Boys a Great Big Hand (87th Precinct series #11)
First Published: 1960
Leading players: Steve Carella,Cotton Hawes, Bert Kling, Andy Parker, Claire Townsend, Meyer Meyer, Dick Giordano, Frankie Hernandez
“Wasn’t Dragnet exciting?”
It’s March 1960, a new decade, but Steve Carella is still here, front and centre, first among equals in the detective ranks of the 87th squad. After the underwhelming domestic shenanigans of ’till Death, the boys are back on top form in a punningly titled case involving a severed hand … well, two in fact. Recalling the opening scene of The Pusher, the novel begins when patrolman Dick Genero visits Max the tailor while on his beat during a particularly wet and cold March afternoon, hoping to sneak a couple of glasses of wine to keep him warm. After he secures his libation, he seen a passenger (of undetermined sex) getting on a bus and leaving behind a small airline bag of the kind that used to be so common – looking for identification, the cop finds the eponymous body part inside the bag. Sam Grossman determines the unusually large hand belong to a white male in his mid-twenties and shortly afterwards its partner is found by an old lady in the trash – but not before Steve, Meyer and Cotton have tried to track down some of the listed missing persons who might match the hacked off appendage(s). Much of the search seems fruitless and frequently has the men bumping into people at a very low ebb in their lives.
This leads Cotton to a long interlude when, after another one of his regular but un-enlightening Sunday trips to church, he reflects on the hard graft that is the work of the policeman:
Police work dealt with essentials, raw instinct and basic motives, stripped of all the hoop-dee-dah of the sterilised, compressed-in-a-vacuum civilisation of the twentieth century.
This section is one of the standouts in a book that combines humour, strong characters and a complex plot with a quasi-allegorical dimension. McBain in fact considers the philosophy of police work, and people’s expectations of it, in relation its representations in the entertainment industry, how fiction glorifies cops when they are just people like everybody else, and how we all tend to use the fantasy created by fiction as a filter for, or even a barrier to, reality – whether through books, operas, theatre, movies or TV. The search is initially deemed hopeless when the two most promising candidates from the list of missing persons that match the general description and presumed murder date inconveniently return home – and with their hands still attached. In fact, the investigation seems to come to a dead halt and McBain contrives to do this at the exactly halfway through the book and at the end of the ninth out of its eighteen chapters, remarking:
“A whole week had gone by, and the boys were right back where they’d started.”
Things however immediately pick up again a few sentences later when a connection is made with the airline bag, which might have belonged to a stripper named Bubbles, who also disappeared around that time. This leads to a highly amusing encounter for Cotton with one of Bubbles’ roommates, another voluptuous exotic dancer, and a slightly less happy reunion with one of the men initially listed as missing who, although he returned with all limbs intact, it now turns out was madly in love with Bubbles and has been AWOL all this time trying to find out why she suddenly disappeared. The book explores its theme of self deception in subtle and intriguing ways, so that the tall tales we hear at the opening – when cops tell of their adventures as rookies – are contrasted with the sadness we see even in seemingly comic episodes involving various suspects and witnesses. Particularly memorable is the blowsy middle aged woman who, furious at being interrupted while with her latest one-night stand, refuses to get dressed and insists on going down to the station wearing only her slip. Caught ‘in flagrante’ with a drug peddler who is not her husband (we learn that this unfaithfulness alone could get her a fine and term in jail!), she is a harboiled woman who says she only reported her son missing because she needed this to collect on the insurance – but eventually she breaks down to reveal the heartache beneath her tough exterior. McBain dovetails this elements with consummate skill, producing here one of the early standout of the 87th Precinct series.
Throughout this book then we are asked to consider the way people behave in public and in private – and how this changes depending on whether they are alone or in company and the deceptions we practice on others, large and small, and even on ourselves. This is aligned with a consideration of how we project our interior perceptions and conceptions of people on to others – on the one hand we have Steve uncharacteristically resort to cliche. Looking for a fight with his beautiful wife Teddy, (who recently bore him twins) after another exhausting day on the job with no end in sight with the search for the body to go with the hands, he insists that strippers are all loose women. He doesn’t believe it, but needs the false but conventional belief to act as a temporary emotional crutch until he can vent his frustration. On the other hand, the murderer proves to have a very peculiar idea of who his victim was and what they were owed …
McBain always claimed that his ‘Isola’ was not Manhattan and that the series was not in fact set in New York – this may explain a throwaway reference late in the book to a classic movie featuring comedic Irishmen entitled ‘The Quiet One’ that is here attributed to director John Huston. Now this is either McBain taking his parallel universe to extremes – in a story which does in fact almost postmodern levels in its frequent references to fictional artifice and the way that people create fictional personas to survive - or he just got confused and meant to refer to the classic Oscar-winning comedy The Quiet Man, directed by John Ford. Either way, it’s another charming touch in a book that, after the real disappointment of the preceding volume in the series, thankfully gets close to something nearing its best with a shocking yet sad finale that both surprises and yet seems, on reflection, entirely appropriate.