Today we return to Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct mysteries. I am re-reading them in chronological sequence (click here to read my earlier reviews), though this is not really necessary as they are all fairly self-contained.
This aspect is well in evidence in this entry, which features a multitude of cases as well as easy-to-digest references to earlier episodes.
Like Love (87th Precinct series #16)
First Published: 1962
Leading players: Steve Carella, Cotton Hawes, Bert Kling, Meyer Meyer, Sam Grossman
“In suicide, as in baseball, it is sometimes difficult to tell who is who or what is what without a scorecard.”
It is April and Spring is in the air but all is not well. It is a year since the city was rocked by the campaign of terror wielded by the Deaf Man in The Heckler and although things seem back to normal, there are deeper and more personal scars that will take much longer to heal. In fact, there is much sadness and loneliness to be found in a novel that, albeit with a light touch, follows the investigation into several crimes with a decidedly domestic, even intimate feel. As the team investigate cases involving disharmony among various families, so their private lives are also put under the spotlight. There will be several violent deaths and emotional confrontations, but not all will be explained at story’s end.
“What happened? Did you get your period today?”
We open dramatically with what was probably already emerging as a procedural staple: someone standing on the ledge of a high-rise building threatening to jump. In this case it is a very young woman, distraught by the loss of her boyfriend. Steve Carella has been sent to talk her down. His suggestion about why she might be feeling unduly emotional that day may have been something of a first in its day but now seems more than a little crass (or even unintentionally funny for fans of Annie Hall). Carella pleads, cajoles and ultimately threatens, but nothing works – and ultimately his attempts end in failure. Understandably this tragic event casts a shadow over the entire novel, which briskly moves on to countdown to yet another utterly senseless death. A door-to-door salesman, near the end of his day in more ways than one, rings a doorbell, unaware that the room inside has been flooded with gas. The electrical circuit engages and sets off a spark and the resulting explosion kills him instantly – and the man and woman inside too. The couple, Tommy and Irene, were lying in bed wearing only their underwear, but this was no accident for a suicide note is found next to the bodies. The couple had apparently decided to end it all and their pact inadvertently took the poor salesman with them. McBain’s depiction of the state of their bodies post-mortem is nicely judged, neither too brutal nor ignoring what will happen to a body as its various muscles relax and stop functioning. The point is that there is no romance in death, even one apparently planned by two lovers to be as kind and painless as possible. But there is also something wrong.
“Carella never read mystery fiction because he found it a bore”
Carella and Cotton Hawes are set to investigate – and right from the beginning things don’t quite stack up. For starters the couple, who were carrying on an illicit affair behind her husband’s back, were happy and planning to get married after a short stay in Reno. And then there is the matter of the finger prints – there aren’t any, anywhere, in the entire apartment. Plus there is something bothering Hawes about the crime scene, though he just can’t quite put his finger on it … As the investigation proceeds we become aware that the detectives are also having domestic issues of their own. Carella is smarting from the death of the suicide victim and talking it out on his family. Cotton Hawes is having a great sex life with his girlfriend Christine Maxwell and getting a crash course on the correct deportment when it comes to underwear – but after four years as a couple (on and off), she clearly wants to get married and he is just not ready for that. In the case of golden-haired youth Bert Kling, the rookie on the detective team, he is now perilously close to becoming a very poor police officer, consumed with grief after the murder of his fiancée Claire in Lady, Lady, I Did It!. In addition, there are several other warring couples that flit in and out of the station house, pinching, stabbing and bashing each other over the head with frying pans. The overall effect is a kaleidoscopic view of human relations, balancing the heightened drama of the deaths with much more mundane instances of discord.
“What’s the matter?” Hawes asked. “Don’t you dig Ionesco?”
“I not only don’t dig him, I don’t understand him.
While finding interesting and usual things to say about the relationship between partners within the procedural school, McBain (aka Evan Hunter) also seems keen in this book to flex his literary credentials, or at least make sure that they don’t get automatically discounted through genre prejudice as this volume is chock full of high-flown references. Master of the absurd Eugène Ionesco gets dragged in to Hawes and Christine’s pre-coital banter, while Meyer invokes JD Salinger when cataloguing the overstocked contents of a medicine cabinet. All of this might seem arbitrary or self-indulgent showing-off but all the various cases ultimately revolve around the ways that people organise their own reality and how this can be shattered when it comes into conflict with a different perception. Hawes invokes Ionesco and Christine talks about French underwear, but the point is that they are not able to discuss her wish to get married. When Carella gets beaten up not once but twice by a complete stranger, it turns out that the grudge that the other man holds exists only in his mind as he blames the detective for his own faults but doesn’t even realise he is doing it. Irene’s mother is an enormous, imposing woman who makes even the bulls of the 87th feel physically inadequate – yet ultimately she is a fragile soul, worried about what they might think of her and her daughter. Ultimately the resolution to what is ‘wrong’ about Irene and Tommy’s death follows this thematic pattern to its logical conclusion, mixing the humour and sociological detail of Salinger with the faint whiff of the absurd associated with Ionesco.
Even if not entirely likely (and for its main bit of evidence reliant on a detail that is certainly very out of date now), it still provides a neat surprise that fully explains the obliqueness of the title. As smoothly written as any of the McBain novels up to this point, with plenty of smart dialogue and well drawn characterisations, this also has a pretty clever plot, a well-hidden ‘truth’ and some decent clues along the way. Well above average.