Today is Friday the 13th so it seemed appropriate to skip forward slightly in my reviews of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct mysteries (all listed here) as this is also the day on which this novel begins (albeit some fifty years ago). It is one of most acutely personal and dramatic of the series …
“Carella would remember that name and the sound of Kling’s voice as long as he lived.”
Lady, Lady, I Did It! (87th Precinct series #14)
First Published: 1961
Leading players: Steve Carella, Bert Kling, Claire Townsend, Meyer Meyer, Andy Parker, Peter Byrnes, Arthur Brown, Hal Willis, Bob O’Brien, Teddy Carella
It is October 1961 and things appear to be going well for the men of the 87th – veteran detective Steve Carella’s twins are two-and-a-half years old and happy; his colleague Meyer is enjoying watching Robert Stack play Elliot Ness in The Untouchables on TV; and Bert Kling and his fiancée Claire Townsend are very much in love and planning to marry once she finishes her degree. But such contentment is brutally curtailed by the end of the first chapter. In previous volumes McBain had bumped off some major characters, most notably violent cop Roger Havilland in Killer’s Choice and he even tried (without success) to polish off Carella at the end of The Pusher. But in this book it’s not one of the detectives that gets killed – it’s Kling’s girlfriend, Claire. She had been a recurring character since the second book in the series, The Mugger, and her death really is a major shock.
“They are all deeply involved in the classic ritual of blood.”
With this phrase McBain bookends this novel which, like its predecessor See Them Die, tests the readers of the mystery genre by looking at the deeper ramifications of the business of murder. While the impact on the investigators will be felt deeply by its main characters, because the investigation into the bookstore shooting involves the murder of several other customers too, they will have to subordinate their personal feelings to their requirements to the job. It offers therefore a very sobering perspective as McBain refuses to turn the book into a eulogy for the passing of a main character from the series, insisting that as tragic as it is, life (and the 87th Precinct series of books) will in fact continue without her. The murder seems particularly cruel (if such a thing is possible) in that it appear to be random – a man wearing sunglasses and a hat walks into a bookstore, takes out two pistols an starts firing, ultimately killing four of the patrons before running out the door. One of them survives for a few hours and at the hospital offers the only clue, repeating the word ‘carpenter’ over and over before he too dies.
While Kling grieves, the rest of the team has to mobilise and investigate all the alternatives they can think of, including the possibility that Claire really was the target but only to get at her boyfriend. Or is it possible that she was hiding something from Kling, something potentially dangerous and even criminal? We find out quite a lot about Claire and her work as a budding social worker and we are also reminded of her role in the series through a technique more usually associated with TV shows in which McBain quotes from several previous volumes in the series to give us some highlights from her romance with Kling. It’s a nice and unusual touch that only assiduous fans would be likely to pick up on, but well done all the same. Then a young woman she had taken an interest in goes missing and eventually turns up dead, adding another layer of complication to the plot. It would be a spoiler to go into too much detail, but intriguingly the book follows this line of inquiry down a very unexpected route, one that initially gets Meyer very badly beaten but which also explores changing social attitudes in a complex and non-judgemental way that is certainly a standout feature of the book.
While the story contains a nifty whodunit with a final clue worthy of an Ellery Queen puzzle, the plot is not one of the most memorable, necessarily getting a little bit bogged down with some extraneous red herrings as each of the deaths is investigated – one involves a drug addict and another an elderly Jewish man who would appear to have no enemies in the world – but of course only one will in the end provide a conclusion, though this is hidden more or less in plain sight. As I mentioned earlier, what lingers in the memory, along with the sheer below the belt knock of Claire’s death, is the lingering sense of life continuing regardless. This is both logical in a continuing series but also an original approach, McBain once again proving just how deft he was at countering reading expectation even in such an already long-running cycle of novels.