“Be human,” she said. “You’re dealing with people, not cyphers.”
The following review is offered as part of Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme, which today is being hosted by Todd Mason over at Sweet Freedom. You should head there now to check out some of the other selections.
80 Million Eyes (87th Precinct series #21)
First Published: 1966
Leading players: Steve Carella, Bert Kling, Teddy Carella, Meyer Meyer, Peter Byrnes, Bob O’Brien, Sam Grossman, Andy Parker
The book begins with a classic situation, one that combines humour and suspense in the kind of everyday scenario that we would all find intimidating and easy to relate to – and which deliberately sounds like the start of a joke. A man walks into his office … to find a stranger waiting and refusing to move. When asked to budge, the stranger threatens the secretary and when a cop turns up he beats the hell out of him. It turns out he has a yen for one of the members of staff – only she claims never to have met him before … Bert Kling takes on the case and discovers that the subject of the stranger’s violent interest is none other than Cynthia ‘Cindy’ Forrest, the girl who caused so much trouble two and a half years earlier in Ten Plus One (click here to read my earlier review). She didn’t like Kling then and doesn’t feel any more warmly now, but he is assigned and must act as her bodyguard while they attempt to flush the man out. It is October 1965 and across town the new TV season has started and hundreds of people are at a makeshift studio to see the biggest comedian of the day. Stan Gifford, a combination of Sid Caesar and Milton Berle, is respected more than he is liked by his colleagues but millions of viewers adore him. The same evening that Bert and Cynthia are failing to get along, in the middle of his mime routine on live TV, Stan keels over and dies.
“The first thing she heard was the voice”
After twenty volumes, McBain once again brings something new to his series. Having already published a book where two separate but thematically linked plot strands ultimately converged (Killer’s Wedge, reviewed here), as well as a collection of novellas, The Empty Hours (which I previously reviewed here), now he combines two previously published shorter pieces, the title novella (which first appeared in Argosy in February 1963) and the 1965 short story ‘The Deer Hunter’, to create a single, longer work. The two cases run in parallel without really intersecting but instead provide contrast, dramatic echo and reflective colour. Anthony Boucher said of this book:
The novelette or novella, the tale of 20,000 to 30,000 words, is an excellent length for the story of crime and detection, but a commercially unpopular one. Readers seem to want a story that will last, at average reading rates, for a whole long evening; so most mysteries run between 50,000 and 75,000 words. But writers, being writers, do like to experiment occasionally with the more concise form – and then what’s to be done with it in hardcovers? Ed McBain comes up with an excellent answer in “Eighty Million Eyes”: take two novelettes and combine them into a contrapuntal novel, so that each story heightens the suspense and casts light upon the theme of the other … Each is very good in itself; combined, expanded and developed, they add up to the best book about the 87th Precinct in several years.
How well do the two stories dovetail into each other? The straight answer is that they don’t, not really. Carella and Meyer are assigned to the Stan Gifford case and have a knotty problem to solve – the studio had over 500 members in the audience and a crew of 212 (!) and yet it is unclear how any of them could have killed the comic. The autopsy reveals that he died from a rare and quick-acting poison – strophanthin – but nobody saw him drink any water and the only pill that he took was at lunchtime, several hours before, which is impossible because the poison once ingested would have killed him in a matter of minutes. Perhaps infected by the variety show atmosphere, Carella and Meyer trade jokes throughout the story while trying to crack a very tough nut.
“He’s very cooperative,” Carella said.
“Yes, he’s very very cooperative,” Meyer agreed.
“Let’s put a tail on him,” Carella said
A peanut also features in Kling’s story, which introduces a new love interest for the lovelorn cop in the initially hostile Cindy. This is much more of a thriller as we see her being stalked by the mysterious attacker who then delivers an awful punishment for a purely imagined slight. This leads to a dark and violent scene in which she is brutally assaulted and McBain, without being exploitative, plays this for maximum realism and generates a real impact, especially as the tone has hitherto been comparatively light. Science comes to the aid of both solutions, with Kling is ultimately able to track down the despicable assailant thanks to some fancy (if perhaps slightly unlikely) forensic work performed by Sam Grossman’s lab on debris left by a shoe, while Carella is able to figure out the ingenious murder method by examining the remedy Meyer is taking for his head cold.
Neither tale sees McBain at his best (both suffer from weak motives) but they are none the less laced with enough humour and ingenuity to deliver the winning combination series fans had come to expect. The author’s penchant for jokeyness however would take a fascinating left turn in the development of Fuzz, the next instalment in the series that also saw the return of arch foe ‘The Deaf Man.’ A review of the book, and the movie derived from it, will be coming to this blog soon …