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 see my reviews of the books in the series). McBain once again rings the changes and proves his versatility with a volume made up of three ‘novelettes’.
“If America is a melting pot, then the 87th Precinct is a crucible.”
The Empty Hours (87th Precinct series #15)
First Published: 1962
Leading players: Steve Carella, Meyer Meyer, Cotton Hawes, Bert Kling, Sam Grossman, Teddy Carella
There are no mysteries in police work … There is no climatic progression; suspense is for the movies.
Despite McBain’s disclaimer to the contrary, this book contains different stories all of which offer intriguing storylines, surprise culprits and plenty of humour – the holy trinity of the 87th mysteries. This 1962 collection is made up of three medium length mysteries (referred to as ‘novelettes’ on the cover of the original hardback) – in my Pan paperback edition they’re about 60 pages each. They are The Empty Hours, which was originally published in Ed McBain’s Mystery Book, Storm (both 1960) and J, first published the following year.
The Empty Hours
First up is the title story, which is set in August 1960. A young woman is found dead in her cheap apartment. She is initially identified as black but it turns out that this is only discoloration due to decomposition – her landlady tells us she was a new tenant, Angela Davis. But trying to pin her down turns into one of the main thrusts of the plot as her behaviour, and her finances, just don’t seem to make much sense. Living in a low rent establishment, it turns out that Davis was in fact a wealthy heiress. She had recently opened a new bank account and had been living off cash she deposited there rather than off her generous trust fund – why? And where did the $25,000 dollars she deposited come from.
“It just doesn’t make sense. She wears underpants trimmed with Belgian lace but lives in a crummy room-and-a-half with bath. How the hell do you figure that?”
Steve goes through her cancelled cheques and discovers that Angela’s cousin had recently died in an apparent boating accident while on holiday – and that her strange purchases and move to new lodgings all date from the time of that death. Now they are both dead – why? Most readers will guess part of the plot fairly early on but there is much to enjoy here, including a hilarious visit to a hairdressing salon where Cotton becomes aware that the female patrons are eying the white streak in his hair (the result of a stabbing) as a potential new fashion.
This is perhaps the most important item in the collection, bringing Meyer Meyer’s Jewish heritage into relief for the first time when he is called in to solve the murder of a rabbi. With April fool’s Day and Easter falling on the same weekend, this promises to be an unusual example of religious observance when the body of Rabbi Solomon is found in the alley behind the synagogue, stabbed several times – and with the letter ‘J’ painted on the wall behind his. The brutal murder seems to be a hate crime (as it would now be termed) and a likely suspect is immediately found in the shape on the pamphleteering anti-Semite Arthur Finch – that this is going to be an emotional and personal case for Meyer becomes clear on their first meeting when Finch lets loose with a barrage of racist epithets and Meyer immediately betas the man into submission. Not like your average 1961 TV show …
“Oh boy”, Loomis sais. “This is like “Dragnet“, ‘aint it?”
“Just like “Dragnet“”, Meyer said dryly.
The ironic contrast between fictional crime solving and the more mundane aspects of the job is emphasised throughout this collection, but most forcefully here, especially in a scene at home in which Meyer is thinking about the case and the deep-rooted feelings it is dredging up while his wife watches a cop show on TV. the case against Finch seams watertight but falls apart in the final pages for a twist in the tale that once again plays on irony for its effect but which, if truth be told, does feel decidedly unlikely in terms of motivation. This tends also to underline that this story is more memorable for its theme than for its plot which gets through another murder before a pretty unlikely culprit is discovered.
Cotton Hawes is the man on point in what may be termed a ‘busman’s holiday’ story crossed with the classic tale of the detective and the suspects all isolated by a heavy snow storm. Cotton and his latest conquest, a dancer whose real name is ‘Bertha Cooley’ (a name that may have appealed to Erle Stanley Gardner), have headed to Rawson Mountain for a skiing holiday and immediately there are problems – a heavy snowfront is on its way and their reservations are not as promised. We are given a highly convincing look at the life in and around the premises as Cotton and Bertha (who uses ‘Blanche’ as her performing name) try to settle in to their holiday despite bad weather, heating that doesn’t work, the voices of the various guests and instructors also staying in the small hotel – and a persistent grinding noise from somewhere in the bowels of the building. And then the next morning one of the instructors, a nineteen-year-old by the name of Helga Nilson, turns up skewered with a sharpened ski pole in the chair lift. Cotton happens to be on the scene at the time of the crime, but it’s out of his jurisdiction and not his case, to his great exasperation.
As befitted this farcical hotel in this comic-opera town, the police were a band of keystone cops led by an inept sheriff who worked on the premise that a thing worth doing was thing worth doing badly.
This is by far the lightest of the three stories as Cotton deals with an inexperienced group of cops, leading to endless frustration as they bungle even basic police procedure – but we are also provided with a flashback to Cotton’s first murder scene as a detective, when his encounter with a ‘stiff’ made him so sick he had to head to the bathroom – which is to say it’s his irritation with the possibility that the killer might get away with it that drives him crazy, not just the lack of proper procedure by the hayseed law enforcers. So inevitably he goes on the hunt for the man who sat next in the lift with the victim, impossible to identify as he was covered head to toe in snow gear. That night Cotton goes searching the murder scene and is attached by the killer, this time wielding a hammer. Cotton ends up arrested for his trouble before eventually starting an uneasy alliance – then another female instructor is killed …
All three of the stories included in this collection follow the basic narrative pattern of started with the discovery of a murdered body, the pursuit of the killer leading to a second murder, and eventually a logical resolution. All three stories take the men of the 87th (for at this stage all the detectives on the squad were men) away from their usual beats. Instead we are offered a trip out to the country to investigate a drowning that may have been something more sinister, a murder steeped in the lore of traditional Jewish faith during Passover, and another in which one member of the squad is cut off from his usually team and has to forge an uneasy alliance with the local police. McBain makes a virtue of the reduced length by streamlining the plots and focusing more on character – the final effect is generally beneficial to the series, though only J really stands out in the series as a whole those these are all efficient and entertaining reads in the best 87th Precinct manner. From here on, even though the series continued to be popular, the rate of three books a year would slacken while experimentation with form and content would become occasionally even more marked.