After an unexpected break of several months I return to the urban (and sometimes urbane) world of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct with one of its best and most compact entries so far. I am at present re-reading the entire corpus of 55 books in chronological sequence (click here to read my previous reviews). This is not strictly necessary however as they are all fairly self-contained – and when they rely on details from earlier volumes, as is very much the case here, McBain always brings the reader right up to speed with a quick update – in this case, the sad decline of detective Kling.
“… there were times lately when Bert Kling gave him a severe pain the ass””
I also submit it for Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott at her Pattinase blog but this week hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog. You should head there right away to check out some of the other selections offered this week.
Doll (87th Precinct series #20)
First Published: 1965
Leading players: Steve Carella, Bert Kling, Teddy Carella, Peter Byrnes, Meyer Meyer, Arthur Brown, Hal Willis, Andy Parker
It is a balmy April but there is evil and violence under the sun – Tinka Sachs, a highly successful fashion model earning a walloping 150 thousand dollars a year, has been brutally stabbed to death while her young daughter Anna played with her doll in the room next door. While this provides the nub of the story, it’s the lingering consequences of a similarly cruel murder of a young woman years earlier that is the real concern here. It’s been nearly four years in fact since Kling’s fiancée Claire Townsend was murdered (in Lady, Lady, I Did It!, which I previously reviewed here) in a random shooting at a bookstore and he has never really recovered – indeed, it seems to be affecting him more and more negatively. From being the youngest and brightest detective in the Precinct, his grief has turned him sour and into very bad cop indeed – argumentative with suspects and even hostile with his colleagues. The lieutenant wants to transfer him out but Steve Carella won’t give up on him and so asks that they be partnered on the Sachs investigation, a decision that will have disastrous and fatal consequences for both of them …
“Psychology substituted understanding for condemnation. It was a very nice tool to possess, psychology was, until a cheap thief kicked you in the groin …”
After nearly a decade and 20 books in the series McBain shows how well he is able to keep up with the times, using language that is stronger than ever (two uses of the F bomb, very surprising in a mainstream mystery of this vintage) and realistic bone-crunching violence; and adding a strong and uncomfortable emphasis of sadism and sexual perversity. In theory Carella solves the murder a third of the way through the novel, but it proves to be very far away from the end of the story. After another argument with Kling, Carella decides to go back to Tinka’s apartment – shortly afterwards he is seen hurriedly leaving, holding one of Anna’s dolls. He has in fact found a crucial clue but, still angry with Kling who left his shift hours early after being told off for his bad behaviour while interrogating Sachs’ agent, decides to go it alone. He rushes off to make an arrest, though crucially we don’t know who, why or how he is planning to do it. He drives to an address, kicks down the door of an apartment but makes a serious miscalculation and is struck from behind and knocked out. This is when the story takes a dramatic left turn – when Carella awakes he find himself stripped naked, handcuffed to a radiator and at the mercy of a vicious drug addict and his even more dangerous girlfriend.
“I’m life or death to you,” she said.
The voluptuous brunette turns Carella into her plaything and starts pistol-whipping him just for fun – she then breaks his nose, starts injecting him with heroine and threatens to knock out all his teeth out if he won’t tell her how he found them. But the detective stands firm. It isn’t a very realistic notion that two drug addicts trying to cover up a murder and holding and torturing a policeman would extend the process for very long, and this proves to be the case – the next day Carella’s car is found burned with a charred, toothless body inside together with the missing officer’s badge and ID. McBain had tried to kill Carella off before in The Pusher (reviewed here) but ultimately was talked out of it. This time though the whole department goes into mourning, even the thuggish Andy Parker crying in his sleep over the death of his colleague. Kling is immediately taken off the case, Byrne vowing to get him kicked off the force. Meyer is put in charge of the investigation but Kling, to honour the memories of Steve and Claire and of the man he once was, slowly starts to find his self-respect again and begins by investigating the suspicious activities of Sachs’ ex-husband who was allegedly out of town at the time of the crime. There are plenty of surprises in store (and a few twists that you will probably see coming too) as well as McBain’s trademark reproduction of physical evidence – in this case we even get some examples of Tinka’s modelling portfolio as well as samples of her writing and extracts from a psychiatrists’ diary. The latter is introduced towards the end of the book and conveniently fills in many plot gaps, though it does also slow the momentum of the story. However this is clearly a deliberate strategy on the author’s part to draw out the suspense, which he does superbly.
This is one of the best of the series, offering a teasing puzzle and powerful and emotional look at the men of the 87th as they cope with the disappearance of one of their own. It also explores themes of addiction, sadism, sexual and psychological dominance and submission – and ultimately catharsis and redemption, in a sophisticated and rewarding fashion. A winner all the way.