Today we turn to one of the most anomalous entries in the 87th Precinct series, which I am currently re-reading in the order of original publication (my previous reviews can be found here). The chronology of the series is only occasionally relevant, though ‘Ed McBain’ (aka Evan Hunter) does generally make an effort to be consistent and when necessary reference earlier developments. In reading them this way, what can often come into sharp relief are the contrasts between individual volumes. This was perhaps never truer than when we compare He Who Hesitates with Axe (1964), the ultra traditional volume that preceded it.
“He supposed he should go to the police”
I offer the following review as part of he 2012 Alphabet of Crime community meme over at Kerrie’s Mysteries in Paradise blog, which this week has reached the letter H. I also offer this book as part of Friday’s Forgotten Books meme, run by Patti Abbott at her Pattinase blog. You should head over there to both of these sites right now and check out some of the other selections on offer.
He Who Hesitates (87th Precinct series #19)
First Published: 1965
Leading players: Steve Carella, Andy Parker, Cotton Hawes, Hal Willis, Dave Murchison, Teddy Carella
We’ve all done it, stopped to take stock, pausing to ponder what we should do next: eat that extra slice of cake, buy that marginal item just because it’s on sale, confess to any one of a small number of possible indiscretions perhaps. This is the dilemma facing Roger Broome, a large but affable chap and something of an innocent, a country bumpkin visiting the big city to sell the wooden goods he makes back home with his brother. He is staying in a low rent apartment in a fairly rundown neighbourhood just long enough to deliver the goods he brought in his pick-up truck before heading back home. Throughout the book he tells people about his life with his brother and his (somewhat dominating) mother back in Carey, near Huddleston, the location for the ski resort featured in The Empty Hours. No one seems to have heard of it, but Roger just keeps telling them anyway – his landlady, the girl in the store, a local drug dealer and a gay man who tries unsuccessfully to pick him up in the park. He even tells Cotton Hawes and Hall Willis when they come to question the tenants in his building after an old fridge is stolen from the basement. Roger seems largely oblivious to his crummy rat-infested surrounding, but perhaps this is because he has something on his mind, something he needs to confess …
“How did you kill it? The rat, I mean.”
“I squeezed it in my hands,” Roger said.
The story, which all takes place on one day, follows on from Axe, the briefest entry in the series thus far and the most conventional perhaps. But now comes one of the strangest, a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern view of the 87th squad. It is set one month after the events in the previous story – it is now February (the 13th), bitterly cold, and snowing heavily. But right away we know from the tone that things are going to be a different from the norm because McBain doesn’t regale us with descriptions of the weather and the city as he usually does. Instead we have something much more intimate and personal, the author’s godlike presence as all-seeing, all-knowing narrator completely absent. The result almost reads like an 87th precinct mystery without the 87th Precinct, even though the boys do appear in it. Part of its fascination in fact stems from the sheer incongruity of an ‘Ed McBain’ book seemingly without any of the ‘McBain’ trademarks – and yet, really, it could have come from no one else as he was an author truly adept at ringing the changes and keeping the format as fresh as possible. Instead of the author’s usual persona with its characteristic mixture of romance, sentiment and deadpan humour, we instead spend a lot of time getting inside Roger’s head so as to understand better the decision he has to make … and the indecision that plagues him.
“I don’t know what a white man in trouble looks like.”
Roger keeps heading off to the police station but never quite makes it inside the building, often waylaid by people he meets quite innocently (he doesn’t even realise when someone is trying to pick him up), though he also keeps finding excuses to postpone the deed – but what is it he has to confess? He follows Steve Carella out of the office with a view to stopping him on the street so he can tell him his troubles, but ultimately he never does go up to him. Instead he meets Amelia, a young woman in a store and the two click and decide the spend most of the day together, eventually ending up back at his place, sharing drinks with some of his neighbours and making fun of the fact that the landlady had her fridge stolen. Eventually the neighbours leave and the two manage to spend some more intimate moments together. Although he’s a little bit worried what his mother might think as she is of mixed parentage, he has already decided that he wants to stay over in the city. You’ll have noticed that I’m delaying getting to the heart of the plot, but actually I haven’t. We do discover what Roger has on his mind through a series of interlocking flashbacks, but this is more about seeing the Squad and the city from an outsider’s point of view, with a consequent reduction in the plot quota. But don;t let this put you off, because the shift in perspective works exceedingly well. It doesn’t change what we feel about the series or the more standard McBain storytelling techniques in his other books, but it does give us something fresh and different.
The book ultimately works itself into a fine psycho-sexual frenzy in its long concluding chapter as we finally discover just why Roger thinks he has to confess and what this might mean for his burgeoning relationship with the sweet Amelia. This is a fine addition to the series and a highly polished little novel in its own right, displaying the author’s usual narrative dexterity in a new and totally fascinating light. I began this challenge to review all the 87th Precinct books almost exactly a year ago with Cop Hater and it is particularly gratifying to find the series still surprising and stimulating almost 20 volumes later. Roger incidentally would reappear in a more traditional entry later in the series, Shotgun (1969), to tie up some loose ends …