Today we return to the world of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct mysteries. Published originally between 1956 and 2005, I have been reading them in chronological sequence (click here to read my other reviews of the books in the series). After the April Fool hijinks of The Heckler, it is now the height of Summer …
“Heat and July, they are identical twins who were born to make you suffer.”
See Them Die (87th Precinct series #13)
First Published: 1960
Leading players: Steve Carella, Frankie Hernandez, Andy Parker, Peter Byrnes
Because there is a decidedly romantic and occasionally sentimental streak in Ed McBain’s work some mystery fans imagine that the 87th Precinct series, which after all began in far off 1956, can be a bit light and fuzzy with characters as upright and decent and patently unreal as those found on the long-running radio and TV series Dragnet. Indeed that show gets name checked one last time in this novel in an exchange between two Puerto Rican immigrants – the forbearing bar owner Luis and Zip, a teenager anxious to make his name in the street gangs:
“Don’t I buy enough in this crumby joint? I ask you for change, don’t give me a Dragnet routine.”
McBain regularly made fun of Jack Webb’s iconic cop show in the early volumes of the series, acknowledging its benchmark status in popular culture. But he was a tremendously varied writer, as interested in realism and social commentary as creating intriguing detective puzzles. As Evan Hunter he had already explored the world of New York’s street gangs in such works as his breakthrough novel The Blackboard Jungle (1954) and the courtroom drama A Matter of Conviction (1959) so inevitably this would also reflected in his urban thrillers as McBain. A case in point is See Them Die, the 13th volume in the series which, inter alia, may have in its opening pages the (dubious?) honour of presenting one of the earliest references in the mystery genre to prophylactics:
“In the empty lot on one corner, there are the charred remains of bonfires, a torn and soiled crib mattress, the trailing white snakes of used condoms.”
The book was designed in part as a contrast to The Heckler, which directly preceded it and introduced criminal mastermind ‘The Deaf Man’ as an arch-nemesis for the boys of the 87th (he would usually return for a caper at the rate of one book every decade or so). In that one the Moriarty-like villain’s plans were presented as a kaleidoscope of activity, spread out all over the city and set throughout the month of April, culminating in a series of terrifying bomb attacks. See Them Die is much more contained by comparison. Set a couple of months later in the sweltering July heat, it is much more claustrophobic, confining its events to just a few hours on a Sunday between eight forty in the morning and one o’clock in the afternoon. The setting is actually highly restricted by comparison, all taking place in and around the ‘Luis Luncheonette’ in the barrio, or as it was then known, ‘Spanish Harlem’, the area in which McBain/Hunter was born (as Salvatore Albert Lombino).
Pepe Miranda is a Puerto Rican and a criminal, a thief and a murderer who has succeeded in eluding the police but who has now been cornered while hiding out at ‘La Gallina’, the local house of ill-repute, next door to Luis’ joint. Various storylines weave in and out of the novel, most prominent being Zip’s desire to kill another boy, which he claims is to satisfy the honour of his girlfriend China, though actually it is nothing but a pretext to establish his criminal ‘bona fides’ to the local gangs (China in fact isn’t even his girl). Then there is Jeff, a sailor on shore leave who meets the same girl and falls for her, but then gets savagely beaten by Zip and his gang and questions whether he could really love people as obviously violent as these Puerto Ricans. Then there is Andy Parker, a violent and racist member of the 87th who is anxious to kill Miranda to assuage his own feelings of inadequacy and lust for violence. In Give the Boys a Great Big Hand, Parker’s relentless racist taunting of fellow detective Frankie Hernandez led to a showdown with Carella that was left unresolved. But this now returns in the hothouse atmosphere of the siege, leading to an ultimately tragic ending.
With its setting confined largely to a single location, this book has a decidedly theatrical, real-time feel. In its setting and approach this novel was perhaps inspired by William Saroyan’s classic Pulitzer Prize-winning barroom drama, The Time of Your Life by way of Joseph Hayes’ The Desperate Hours and Robert Sherwood’s The Petrified Forest, both plays about a siege in which a die-hard criminal on-the-run is finally cornered. As various characters – including series regulars Steve Carella, Hernandez, Byrnes and Parker – congregate, they end up as spectators and participants in a spectacle guided, almost unconsciously, by an atavistic desire to watch the final death throws of a celebrity criminal who, in the local community, is as much admired as he is feared. As the title suggests there is a ritualistic element here, albeit one that also belongs to the enjoyment of the crime and mystery genre itself, which usually begins with a death but which in this case is delayed until the very end.
The novel is as much a thriller as an exploration of the strange symbiosis between two contrasting but deeply ingrained impulses that often glamorise criminals for the willingness to stand as individuals and breaks with society’s norms even though these are frightening and dangerous figures. Some of the best parts of the books explore the characters’ a desire to belong and the fear of being subsumed by their surroundings and the loss their own sense of identity. The depersonalising effect of the big city, contrasted with the experience of the Puerto Rican island natives, gives the book a slightly romantic and forlorn quality, though McBain is too smart to get too carried away. Indeed the author allows himself the opportunity to play god – anticipating a similarly postmodern gambit by John Fowles in The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1968) – and suggests various Hollywood style solutions to the dilemmas and dramatic scenarios he has created, but then undercuts them with his usual wit and charm:
“… there was the further possibility that he could and might break out of this apartment today, foiling the police, the Breen office, the brothers Warner, and even Anthony Boucher.”
With the emphasis on character and its social dimensions this is a book that, like King’s Ransom before it, tends to show perhaps more of the ‘Hunter’ persona coming through and ultimately is all the better for it – a powerful and complex look at the immigrant experience at the time, sidelining most of the squad other than its most saintly and most damned members for a conclusion that suggests that when it comes to crime and race relations and the idolatry of those that step our from the rut of normal society, there are seldom easy solutions and any real victories other than small ones. Although one of the lesser-known titles in the 87th corpus, this is an impressive work that is well worth looking out for.