THE HECKLER (1960) by Ed McBain

Today we reach another milestone in the 87th Precinct mysteries by Ed McBain, one that introduced one of its most nefarious characters. This is the twelfth of my reviews, all of which are listed here. This page will be updated as I progress through the entire run, which was published originally between 1956 and 2005.

“Get out of that loft by the thirtieth, or I’ll kill you”

The Heckler (87th Precinct series #12)
First Published: 1960
Leading players: The Deaf Man, Steve Carella, Meyer Meyer, Bert Kling, Frankie Hernandez, Andy Parker, Peter Byrnes, Sam Grossman, Teddy Carella

For every hero, even a corporate one, there must be a nemesis – for James Bond it was the cat-stroking Ernst Stavro Blofeld, for the ‘Yellow Peril’ Dr Fu Manchu it was Nayland Smith, for Nero Wolfe it was Arnold Zeck and for Sherlock Holmes it was the ‘Napoleon of Crime’, Professor Moriarty … and The Heckler is the novel that introduced an arch-criminal to Ed McBain’s series of police procedurals, one whose evil plans would dog the team for decades to come – get ready to meet …The Deaf Man.

“There are crazy people all over, you know that, don’t you?”

It is April fool and jokes and pranks are being played all over Isola – but these take a sinister turn when nasty phone calls are made anonymously to owners of various businesses around the city. They seemingly have nothing in common, except for one thing: they are situated next door to banks and jewellers. McBain’s books frequently show the author’s thorough knowledge of the traditional detective story, right from the debut of the 87th, Cop Hater, which riffed on the plot of Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders while John Dickson Carr and his locked room mysteries were celebrated in Killer’s Wedge. This time it’s the turn of Conan Doyle’s immortal detective Sherlock Holmes, a gambit signaled in the most deliberate manner imaginable – by having members of the squad refer to the particular story in question:

“I’m reading a very good story,” Kling said. “You ever read it Meyer?”
“What’s it called?”
The Redheaded League,” Kling said.
“No,” Meyer answered. “I don’t read mysteries. They only make me feel stupid.”

‘The Deaf Man’ – who also goes by the wry alias of ‘L. Sordo’, which in Spanish, as ‘El Sordo’, would mean the same thing and who may or may not in fact be a bit hard of hearing – is cast very much in the Professor Moriarty mould and this is a story steeped in Sherlockian lore. Like Holmes’ great foe, he brings a scientist’s skills to the business of crime, calculating the odds to the nth degree, even showing his crew a mathematical formula to explain why they will succeed in their plan. Many scholars believe that Moriarty was in fact behind John Clay’s plan in ‘The Redheaded League’ so this proves particularly apt here – especially since the Deaf Man’s plan in fact relies on the police recognising his use of the short story as a template.

The boys of the 87th are investigating two apparently unrelated crimes – there is the  ‘heckling’ of some two dozen businesses and the murder of man found naked in the park. The former is mainly directed at an ironing businesses run by David Raskin, an old family friend of Meyer Meyer who becomes the lead investigator; Steve Carella is the one who has to find out who blew a shotgun hole through a man actually named (to the detective’s incredulity) John Smith. It is unfortunate that Meyer and Carella don’t share information for it becomes clear fairly early on to the reader that they are in fact working on the same case, one that involves a heist, explosives, an ice cream truck and a massive distraction to offset the possibility of police interference. The two strands of the narrative only coalesce when Carella tracks down ‘John Smith’ to an apartment that the dead man should not have been able to afford on his measly pension – and which is the scene for the first encounter between the detective and the Deaf Man. This proves almost deadly for Carella who ends up shot, beaten and in a coma. In some of McBain’s best writing, we vividly explore the oddly lucid turmoil of Carella’s mind while he is in hospital:

“He was staring wide-eyed at the knowledge that he and his colleagues had come up against a type of planning and execution that rendered them virtually helpless … he did not question the intuition nor its clarity – but he knew damn well that it scared him”

The book is a bit of a hodge-podge, including domestic scenes of the Carella family (now including twins, an ‘Oirish’ housekeepr-cum-nanny and a large rambling house made affordable after being sold for back taxes); high comedy as Raskin’s heckling becomes more and more outrageous and elaborate as food, chairs and even an orchestra are sent to his premises in an effort to make him vacate by April 30th; and a couple of mildly erotic interludes (one involving Steve and Teddy, the other with the Deaf Man and a voluptuous waitress) of the kind that McBain would normally reserve for his books as ‘Evan Hunter’ or his later Matthew Hope thrillers; and an entire section between chapter 8 and 9 in which a series of events is related purely in the form of memos and reports.

But this book is most importantly the one that serves to introduce the Deaf Man, and in this regard it does a superb job as we follow, with horrified fascination, his execution of a truly cold-blooded criminal scheme that paralyses the city and puts the lives of thousands of citizens at risk just to pull off a $2.5m heist. Clearly this is a major villain and one we will have to keep our eyes and ears (sic) open for. In what will prove to be a pattern for later encounters, the plan is eventually foiled but only by chance and so the Deaf Man makes a Moriarty-like escape, plunging into a body of water. Unlike his literary progenitor though, he will resurface in several more novels later in the series – these are:

  • Fuzz (1968)
  • Let’s Hear it for the Deaf Man! (1972)
  • Eight Black Horses (1985)
  • Mischief (1993)
  • Hark! (2004)

***** (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.

13 Responses to THE HECKLER (1960) by Ed McBain

  1. Your review of THE HECKLER led me to your other reviews of 87th Precinct series by Ed McBain which I plan to read in coming days. Thank you for the link. I’ve never read McBain before having acquired my first book by him, DOWNTOWN, a non-87th Precinct mystery, in October this year. Now I’m eagerly looking forward to my very own McBain book-fest.

    • Thanks very much Prashant – I think the series is great fun and is also extremely varied, which is a real testament to the author’s skill. Can’t wait to hear what you think of them.


  2. Pingback: SEE THEM DIE (1960) by Ed McBain | Tipping My Fedora

  3. Pingback: LIKE LOVE (1962) by Ed McBain | Tipping My Fedora

  4. Pingback: FUZZ (1968) by Ed McBain | Tipping My Fedora

  5. Pingback: LET’S HEAR IT FOR THE DEAF MAN (1973) by Ed McBain | Tipping My Fedora

  6. Leslie says:

    I had already read a couple of Ed McBain books in the late 60s when I came across The Heckler. I was completely knocked out by it and from that time, I have a copy of and have read every new McBain as they appeared and I have never been disappointed (with the possible exception of the “experimental?” He Who Hesitates). I have always retained the view that The Heckler the very best of this path-breaking series of 87th Precinct books.
    Not only was The Heckler the first appearance of the Deaf Man, it also describes the escalation of the crimes ascribed to him from the very humblest (heckling) to the utterly fabulous (making war on the United States of America!), Brilliant, violent, funny. I just loved it, 10/10 for me.

    • Thanks for that Leslie – the Deaf Man books are certainly something special within the 87th series – and considering how varied it was, to find only the odd one that doesn’t work is pretty amazing I think.

  7. Hank says:

    I re-read “The Heckler” this week, and although I realized that to do so might be akin to learning how a magician performs his magic tricks, I decided to outline the Deaf Man’s plot (well, McBain’s plot as well) as I read to see what, if anything, might be revealed.

    As a result, as much as I want to discuss this novel, I can’t do it at all without discussing spoilers. If you haven’t read “The Heckler”, read it, it’s great. Not the best of the Deaf Man novels, but I prefer that to the notion of five disappointing follow-up Deaf man novels. In fact, I like that it marks the beginning of what will be an ever-festering resentment for both the Deaf Man and the 87th Precinct, particularly Carella.


    O.K. In paying extra-close attention to these details, many questions arise that make the Deaf Man’s scheme seem less than brilliant:

    1. The dead man, John Smith: The disposal of both the body and the uniform could have been handled better (as in Jimmy Hoffa-style). What with all the underground work that this gang of bandits was doing, couldn’t they have stashed the remains in a far safer location (at least for the duration of the caper)? The result is that although the Deaf Man killed Smith for talking too much, his ineffective corpse disposal actually directed the police to those people with whom Smith had been so chatty. Not so smart.

    2. What kind of costume store rents work uniforms? (If I remember correctly, by the time of “Eight Black Horses” the Deaf Man will pretty much be stealing everything he needs for this capers anyway.)

    3. If the threats against Raskin and his loft (above the bank) were intended merely to be a distraction, why did the Deaf Man have two picks and two shovels delivered to the loft ten days in advance, with instruction to not deliver them if Raskin has not yet vacated the premises? Did the Deaf Man know that the delivery man would screw up these directions? Did he instruct the guy to pretend to screw them up?

    4. Another thing I should try and track: How much capital did the Deaf Man invest into this particular caper? He managed to rent a luxury apartment (apparently with no ID or credit/background check), book a party with chairs, food and a 14-piece orchestra for 430 people, hire limousines, rent houses and storefronts, apparently all paid in cash he somehow keeps in an unknown location.

    5. The nightgown: The Deaf Man takes a girl out to dinner, apparently slips her whatever passed for a roofie in 1959 (the novel corresponds with the April 1959 calendar), takes her back to the apartment and has her…put on a nightgown? Pretty depraved behavior for the Eisenhower era, I guess.

    6. Stealing an ice cream truck the day of the heist was probably pretty stupid–why couldn’t they had done that two weeks in advance or whenever? They’d already rented the house in Majesta with the garage. The cop that ultimately tips to them did so…partly based on a report he’d heard of a stolen ice cream truck that day. The Deaf Man’s statistical analysis definitely let him down there.

    All that said, the Deaf Man’s caper is (for the most part) actually quite plausible—for April, 1959. Such a scheme would certainly be more difficult to pull off today. Caller ID, of course, would eliminate any widespread use of threatening phone calls (could Meyer have at least put some sort of trap on Raskin’s phone?)

    (I also have to wonder whether anybody has ever actually managed to dig a tunnel that allowed entrance into a bank vault from below like that. It seems to happen in movies all the time, but, has it ever happened in real life?)

    Most sobering, however, is the Deaf Man’s orchestrated mayhem that occurs on April 30th. Frankly, the idea of such a terrorist spree taking place in 1959 seems quite plausible indeed. In fact, any graphic description of the aftermath of these bombings is conspicuous by its absence; there are riots at the baseball game, the National Guard is called out, and the power plant is apparently damaged enough to cut off electricity to parts of the city, but the reader is otherwise spared the details of the likely widespread resulting horror and chaos. What is reassuring, however, is remembering the much more effective response to the Boston Marathon bombings of a couple of years ago. Despite the efforts of many real-life Jack Savage clones employed by several prominent national newspapers and cable channels, surveillance photos of Jackball A and Jackball B actually planting their little pressure cooker bombs were quickly published nationwide, leading to their capture. None of this could have been possible in 1959 Isola.

    My biggest quibble with “The Heckler” is that it might be McBain’s most unflattering portrayal of Steve Carella’s investigative skills: On April 14th, Carella visits Lotte Constantine, who I.D.’s the dead man as “John Smith”. Carella immediately decides that this could only be an alias, which might be a reasonable initial reaction. However, Carella not only refuses to consider the possibility that the dead man’s name actually was John Smith–he doesn’t get around to finally calling up the local Social Security office to ask about men named John Smith until either April 27th or April 28th—NEARLY TWO WEEKS LATER. Seriously? While I can picture certain other McBain detectives fumbling in the dark in a homicide investigation for two full weeks because they rather stubbornly refused to consider this possibility—not Carella. No. It just doesn’t fit.

    That said—that detail is easy to miss. McBain is mostly silent about much of what happens during this period of nearly two weeks, focusing primarily on Meyer and Raskin’s loft. Like I said—I had a hunch going into this that by laying bare the Deaf Man’s scheme, free of narrative tension, the caper might seem implausible. Surprisingly, it doesn’t—instead, it’s Carella that is portrayed as uncharacteristically incompetent.

    Oh well. I’m already about a third into “Fuzz”, giving it the same fine-tooth treatment as well.

    ***END SPOILERS***

    • Wow Hank, you really have given this some real thought! It’s been too long since I read it to be able to comment properly, though one could perhaps suggest from your points:

      1. That was sloppy. However, The Deaf Man does seem to deliberately leave things to chance as part of his idea of ‘playing fair’ and which then usually spoils his plans. Deep down, does he have a psychological need to both dominate and have his brilliance acknowledged in person (meaning he would need to be caught). I agree, bits don’t make a lot of sense as a result…
      2. Well, if I’m making a movie about workmen, I have to get my uniforms from somehere …
      3. Yes, dunno about this …
      4. I assumed he was usuing somebody else’s identity and money
      5. He made up for this later in the series though …
      6. Surely the opposite is true – you steal on the day so there is less time for police to respond? Do it in advance and they have much longer to track you down …

      In terms of plausibility, believe it or not, in the UK there was a massive heist pulled off a couple of miles from my office earlier this year that involved just such digging underground in broad daylight and the use of a massive diversion – The Deaf Man would have been proud (it even made it into Wikipedia) – you can read about the Hatton Garden jewelry heist here.

      • Hank says:

        Holy cow–£200 works out to $300 million–yet another in a long line of news stories that I’m surprised apparently didn’t get much US traction.

        Some of these details echo the comedy of “Fuzz”–surveillance video of the heist was actually swiped from the police and leaked to the media? And McBain could have written the following: “We are now in a position to confirm that on this occasion our call handling system and procedures for working with the alarm monitoring companies were not followed…Our normal procedures would have resulted in police attending the scene and we apologise that this did not happen.”

  8. Pingback: EIGHT BLACK HORSES (1985) by Ed McBain | Tipping My Fedora

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