FUZZ (1968) by Ed McBain

McBain-Fuzz-signet-movieAnd Fedora is back (for now …) and so is Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series (for my previous reviews click here). I am reading them chronologically, an approach that pays dividends in the case of Fuzz. Not only does it see the return of the squad’s arch nemesis ‘The Deaf Man’, it also plays with the format by subverting reader expectations – plainly put, our heroes get everything wrong!

I offer the following review as part of the 2013 Book to Movie Challenge at the Doing Dewey blog – for links to other participants’ reviews, click here; and Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott of Pattinase blog, though today the links are hosted by Todd Mason at Sweet Freedom

Fuzz (87th Precinct series #22)
First Published: 1968
Leading players: Steve Carella, Bert Kling, Cotton Hawes, Peter Byrnes, Meyer Meyer, Arthur Brown, Hal Willis, Andy Parker, Eileen Burke, Bob O’Brien, The Deaf Man

“Oh boy, what a week. Fourteen muggings, three rapes, a knifing on Culver Avenue, thirty-six assorted burglaries, and the squadroom was being painted”

McBain-Fuzz-pbAfter an unprecedented two-year break, Evan Hunter returned to the 87th Precinct series to deliver one of its most unusual yet also most popular entries. Indeed when first published, this blackly comic tale of murder and mayhem got great reviews and proved to be one of the most commercially successful in the series thus far. The film rights were sold almost right away, with Hunter reportedly netting well over $100,000 from the movie sale (he would ultimately also provide the screenplay, though more about that later). So why was this one so popular? Well, in part of course it may have been because the team from the 87th had been away for two years, but it is also one of the most agreeable and lighthearted of entries, despite a plot that sees senior city officials being held to ransom and several murders taking place. Allen J Hubin in his 1968 review for the New York Times said, “I don’t know when I’ve enjoyed the 87th Precinct as much”, which is just about right because this is a departure where McBain turns the series into a complete farce – indeed, this is a book where our established heroes spend most of their time screwing things up over and over again!

“There is nothing I hate more than a mystery,” Meyer said.

While the chronology of the series got increasingly hazy as the years wore on, with the main cast of characters hardly aging at all, the McBain mysteries tried to remain as up-to-date as possible in terms of police procedure and forensic technology. In the case of Fuzz we get several long rants about the impact of the recent Miranda (1966) and Escobedo (1964) decisions that radically altered the way the police could interrogate suspects by legally enshrining the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney during an interrogation. But the cops don’t appreciate this because it makes their jobs much tougher – but then, this is very much a book about the impediments that will thwart virtually all attempts at crimebusting by the boys and girls of the 87th – just nothing seems to go right. For starters the office is being redecorated during a particularly freezing McBain-Fuzz-hb-doubledayMarch, so all the windows are open despite the cold. Desks are covered in sheets, making it hard to get any work done but then bits and pieces of their equipment start getting pinched, never to be seen again (I had my eye on the decorators). Then Steve Carella goes undercover as a wino to stop a couple of slimeballs who are dousing sleeping vagrants in fuel and setting them alight – and what happens? He winds up in hospital with second degree burns! And when he recovers he goes back out again, when he hears the two villainous vigilantes coming, his gun gets caught in his shirt and he ends up back in the hospital having got the living hell beaten out of him.

“”Have a drink” one of the boys shouted, and Carella saw a match flare into life, and suddenly he was in flames”

But it doesn’t stop there – because this book sees the return of the criminal mastermind with the hearing aid (which he may not actually need) ‘The Deaf Man’ – and he wants to make the 87th look like chumps. Introduced in The Heckler (which I previously reviewed here), after a gap of eight years he returns and is clearly still upset that his previous extortion plan was foiled by Carella and co. This time he threatens to kill a public official unless $5,000 dollars is paid. He sends the note to the 87th but the money isn’t paid at the drop-off ) an innocent party was sent to collect it, leading the police exactly nowhere) – and the official is duly shot and killed. The ‘Deaf Man’ then McBain-Fuzz-rosettaups the ante and threatens to kill the deputy mayor unless $50,000 is paid. This leads to an extended stakeout in the park that sees Meyer and Kling in disguise as nuns (!) while Hal Wills literally gets in the sack (well, a sleeping bag to be exact) with luscious policewoman Eileen Burke. When a man (another one of the Deaf Man’s innocent patsies) comes to collect the money (actually just blank paper) in a lunch box on a park bench, the 87th roars into action – well, sort of. Willis and Burke’s sleeping bag zipper gets stuck and rookie patrolman Genero ends up shooting himself in the leg! Looks like the Deaf Man just might get away with it this time.

“Why is it I always get involved with vaudeville acts?” Meyer asked.
“Huh?” the first painter said.
“He’s being wise,” the second painter said.

Here the ‘Deaf Man’ uses the pseudonym ‘Mort Orecchio’ (a French and Italian commingling that roughly translates as ‘dead ear’) and as always seems to be at least two steps ahead of the police, though the tone couldn’t be more different from his earlier appearance as this really is a farce with the team’s antics frequently compared to those of the Keystone cops. Ultimately the case is solved, but only through sheer coincidence and dumb luck (with the emphasis on the former). It isn’t all fun and games though – there’s a great scene in which Carella visits Genero in the hospital, the latter not really understanding why he will never get promoted to detective; while the Deaf Man’s vicious disregard for human frailty in explored in a nasty sequence when he makes a drug addict debase herself to get her next fix. This is a supremely well-written entry in the series, one that handles both comedy and drama with superb skill.

The Deaf Man cases

  • The Heckler (which I previously reviewed here),
  • Fuzz (1968)
  • Let’s Hear it for the Deaf Man! (1972)
  • Eight Black Horses (1985)
  • Mischief (1993)
  • Hark! (2004)

McBain-Fuzz-pb2The book rights were snapped up almost immediately following its serialisation in the Saturday Evening Post but there were many delays in production – Brian De Palma was originally hired but there were problems with the unions in New York so eventually the director moved on to another project; a new script was written and the location eventually shifted to Boston for the exteriors and LA for the interiors. Burt Reynolds, despite his then new moustache (which was not yet a trademark), is physically excellent casting as Carella even though his laid back good old boy persona is quite different from the character in the book. His presence however was an unexpected boon to the commercial prospects of the movie as it had the good fortune to appear just as Reynold’s career as a star was really taking off. It coincided in fact with the release of Deliverance (1972) and the publication of his notorious Playgirl centerfold, which was actually incorporated into the movie poster artwork (you can see it in the tie-in cover at the top of this review). Yul Brynner also makes for an excellent ‘Deaf Man’ as you need a real star to make an impression in such a small but crucial role, one that appears mostly in isolation from the rest of the characters and tends to be remote and unemotional.

“What do you mean we’re inept?” – Bert Kling (Tom Skerritt)

Hunter ultimately wrote the script himself and is very faithful to the story, amplifying the humour and the importance of the role played by series’ female detective Eileen Burke – who for some reason here becomes ‘Eileen McHenry’ – which was expanded from just one scene in the book so as to provide an adequate part for Raquel Welch. Jack Weston makes for an excellent Meyer though Tom Skerritt is perhaps a little uneasy as Kling. On the other hand Dan Frazer is perfect as the lieutenant – he would go on to play the exact same role for years on TV in Kojak (1973-78), which began airing shortly afterwards. Intriguingly, while Hunter sticks to the book pretty much all the way through, he did alter the ending somewhat, mainly by adding the finale from the previous appearance of ‘The Deaf man’ in The Heckler, which makes sense as it suggested the possible return of the Squad’s nemesis (and jokingly resembles the ending of Deliverance actually). Sadly though there would be no sequel to this film, though it did well enough at the box office of the day. Good fun and well worth finding if you’re in the mood for a salty-but-fun police comedy thriller.

Fuzz (1972)
Director: Richard A. Colla
Producer: Martin Ransohoff
Screenplay: Evan Hunter (from his novel as by ‘Ed McBain’)
Cinematography: Jacques Marquette
Art Direction: Hilyard Brown
Music: Dave Grusin
Cast: Burt Reynolds, Raquel Welch, Jack Weston, Yul Brynner, Tom Skerritt, Tamara Dobson

***** (4 fedora tips out of 5)

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55 Responses to FUZZ (1968) by Ed McBain

  1. TracyK says:

    Welcome back. I have missed you and your posts.

    This post is another reminder that I haven’t read the Ed McBain books that I wanted to read… I have read only the first one. I really hope to remedy this in the latter half of this year. If not then, no later than 2014. I had no idea there was a movie… and with Burt Reynolds, no less. I will come back and read this in more detail as I get further through the series.

    • Thanks TracyK – it is very nice to be back (though there will probably have to be another pause if / when I move house again next month, all theings being equal …). The movie and the book are both highly entertaining and surprisingly comedic despite the various murders, assaults etc.

  2. Sergio – So nice to have you back. And you’ve chosen a terrific book/film. One of the things you highlight here that I’ve always liked about this series is the humour woven through it. Hunter does this as you point out so well without detracting from the seriousness of what Carella & Co. have to face. And it is good to hear that Hunter wrote the film’s screenplay. I think it helps keep a film close to the spirit of the book when the author writes or collaborates on the screenplay. An excellent post as ever – thanks

    • Thanks Margot, you’re a real pal. The Hunter / McBNain humour is crucial, as you say, and livens up even the more loosely-plotted entries in the series – I had a great time with this one especially.

  3. Colin says:

    Yay! Good to see you back, for now at least.
    I reckon there’s no reason why crime and humour can’t be blended successfully, and this sounds like it got the balance about right. Although I have seen nearly all of Reynolds’ 70s output, this movie version has somehow managed to elude me. Given the humorous aspects, I think Reynolds is inspired casting – he could play comedy with his eyes closed but was also a very fine serious actor when handed the right material. Thanks – another one to look out for.

    • Cheers mate – yes, cautiously tipping my toes back in the blogosphere now that part 1 is successfully concluded and part 2 is hopefully only a few weeks away … Fuzz is available on DVD easily enough though not that cheaply and is, compared with most of his other films, a bit tougher to track down, which has always surprised me given the cast. I’m with you, reynolds is a serious and capable actor – it’s a shame he made so many bad or mediocre movies but he made a lot of great ones too (and I include films as different as Hooper and Aldrich’s Hustle in my high estimation).

      • Colin says:

        Ah! I’ll have to look into tracking down a copy. On the subject of Reynolds, Sharky’s Machine is a wonderfully tough cop movie. I’m also quite fond of Shamus too.

        • I rerember liking SHAMUS a lot but it’s been about 20 years since I saw that one. I remember getting a bit too hung up on how similar SHARKY’S MACHINE was to LAURA so it stopped me enjoying it – it would be nice to see it in a decent Blu-ray and completely uncut (I remember it had censorship problems at the time). I plan to review William Goldman’s novel HEAT quite soon and quite liked the Burt Reynolds adaptation (it’s now now neing remade with Jason Statham would you believe).

  4. neer says:

    I am so glad you are back Sergio. And what a coincidence this is that I picked up FUZZ from the library just a couple of days ago. It’d be my first Ed Mc.Bain. I’ll read your review after reading the book.

    Incidentally, I read another author recommended highly by you: Bill Pronzini. My reactions are over here:
    http://inkquilletc.blogspot.in/2013/05/ffb-night-screams-by-bill-pronzini-and.html

    I’d love to have you have a look.

  5. justjack says:

    Could not WAIT to read your review of Fuzz. I’m so pleased that you rate it highly, as I myself raced through it so fast that it practically slingshotted me into the next book in the series immediately after.

    I like Genero as an addition to the cast of major characters; now that Bert Kling has been around the block a few times and has worked through his demons, he can’t really be thought of as “the young guy” on the team, so somebody needed to be introduced to fill that role. Sort of like the problem tv shows have when their child actors grow up, and a “Cousin Oliver” has to be brought in to be the little kid again.

    I also loved the pure coincidence that foils the Deaf Man’s plans at the end. Although a few other reviewers didn’t care for the randomness of the conclusion, to me it was really the only way to tie up the story. After all, we’d just been through ~170 pages of police ineptness; what, were they all of a sudden going to get ept in the last 10 pages? Nah. Sheer dumb luck is the only way they were going to win out this time. Although I did like that Steve was able to get inside the Deaf Man’s head and anticipate the flaw in the crime plan that would ultimately be the Deaf Man’s downfall. Even though it didn’t help the cops to solve the mystery, it did show that Steve is beginning to understand how the Deaf Man thinks.

    The two painters got me thinking about a favorite device of McBain’s. He introduces a two-man team into a scene, and their rapid-fire back and forth banter gives him a chance to write some inspired Who’s On First type comic routines. Usually it’s the two detectives from Homicide; sometimes it’s Carella and Meyer during downtime (there were several such C&M exchanges in 80 Million Eyes). It reminds me of the opening scenes of Dragnet before the story proper gets going, when Joe Friday and his partner get to gas on about what they plan to do on their day off.

    At this point in the series I have come to love every single cop in that squad. I even love Andy Parker, thanks to the glimpse into his inner heart that Ed McBain provided us in Doll.

    Last week at the Friends Of The Library sale I picked up a copy of “The Chisholms,” by Evan Hunter. He wrote westerns too? Eep. That’ll be my next book, once I finish my current read, The G-String Murders by Gypsy Rose Lee.

    • Thanks for all the kind words Jack. The arbitrariness of the foiling of his plans, which tends to characterise the Deaf Man stories in toto, is perfectly suited for this kind of story, I quite agree. Kling definitely had to move on, even if the men of the Precinct never really seem to age (in years at least) – he will now just continue to be the unluckiest man in love in the history of detective fiction this side of Inspector Morse. Look forward to haring what you make of the Gypsy Rose Lee book – I thoroughly enjoyed it myself (click here for my modest thoights on the subject). You are right to point to the fact that we have more understanding for Parker – he remains an awful bastard, but at least a recognisably human one! Next up, Shotgun!

  6. Well, you’ve finally convinced me, Sergio. Cop Hater is currently sitting on my Kindle. I may be a few books behind you, but it’s time to give this series another crack.

  7. Jose Ignacio says:

    Glad to see you back, Sergio!. You have whetted my interest on this series.

  8. FUZZ is one of my favorite McBain novels. It seems like it triggered a whole series of TV cop shows like HILL STREET BLUES.

  9. Mike Doran says:

    A favorite book and a favorite movie.
    It was my good fortune to have read the book first, while my brother happened to see the movie before I could get to it.
    From him, I learned that some of the 87th cahracters exchanged functions in the story, but that was okay, movies do that all the time.
    The casting choices were all good ones, and in my mind augured well for a possible series (or ‘franchise’ as the modern terminology goes).
    I especially liked James McEachin as Arthur Brown, who was in the process of building up his points at the 87th, and Bert Remsen as desk Sgt. Dave Murchison.
    Also Steve Ihnat, a great choice for Andy Parker; he died unexpectedly just before the film came out.
    Also also, Neile Adams (the ex-Mrs. Steve McQueen) as Teddy Carella.
    And if I try to list all the other actors I’ll be here all day.

    I recall that Fuzz the movie got some critical raps for its “episodic” structure, as though that was a bad thing.
    Don’t movie critics read, for heaven’s sake?

    As I said above, I’d thought that this would have been the first of an 87th movie series, and was disappointed when that didn’t happen. Ah Well …

  10. Richard says:

    Sergio, what an excellent review. Each of your reviews of a McBain books make me want to drop everything and read the book, especially this one. One of these days…

  11. Great review; glad to see you’re back and tackling the 87th Precinct still. I enjoyed this one as well, a solid blend of comedy and drama. (Though I had to question the logic of sending a badly-burned Carella back out on stakeout to get hammered again. Between this and Doll, poor guy can’t catch a break.)

  12. curtis evans says:

    I thought that was Burt Reynolds on the cover! That’s one of the most bizarre paperback covers I’ve seen, but characteristic of that decade.

    I’m going to review another McBain on the blog. I’ve got 87th Precinct fever, I suppose!

  13. curtis evans says:

    Were they going for Barbarella on that cover as well?

  14. justjack says:

    One other thing I forgot to mention. The painting of the squad room green over the old dingy green immediately put me in mind of another squad room: the 12th precinct of Barney Miller. I wonder if, like Hill Street Blues, there was any psychological connection to McBain’s series.

    Funnily enough, the Eight-Seven was back to being dingy and dirty by the very next book.

    • OK< I really hadn;t taken in the change of colour scheme – I really will have to lookmore closely. It's been decades since I watched the wonderful Barney Miller – thanks for all this Jack, greatly appreciated.

    • curtis evans says:

      You know I was just thinking about Barney Miller when reading an Ed McBain, hadn’t thought about that show in a long while, used to watch when it first aired, when I was a teenager.

  15. At the outset, the two-year gap until the next 87th Precinct appears to have been some sort of a ploy on Hunter’s part to ensure its success. I haven’t read FUZZ (yet) but it seems as if Hunter has given equal footage to both the lead and secondary characters, a sort of reunion of the 87th Precinct squad. Is that common in his novels? The very few I’ve read so far have Carella and Brown as principal characters. Great job, Sergio! One of these days I might surprise you with a McBain review; it’s certainly tempting at the moment.

    • Thanks Prashant – look forward to reading the reviews! Brown only appears regularly fairly late in the series in fact – until then Carella was usually paired with Meyer or Cotton, the latter being noticeably absent or on the periphery in the last few books I’ve been reviewing in fact. I think you may be right in that McBain / Hunter wanted to make the return a bit special, which is why he brought back the Deaf Man too – not sure why there was a gap though Hunter had been very busy in Hollywood around that time …

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  17. justjack says:

    Sergio! I just got around to watching the movie version of FUZZ. Overall I liked it, but it does feel rather insubstantial–almost like something made for tv. What fun to meet all the members of the 87th. And I’m glad that Evan Hunter wrote the screenplay, so the movie stays true to the book. But it felt very funny picking up this book out of the series and then building a movie out of it in such a way that one almost had to know who these people all were before watching.

    Burt Reynolds was acceptable as Steve Carella, although the only moment when he really did feel like Steve to me was when he was talking about or with his wife Teddy. I also liked Tom Skerrit as Kling, apparently more than you did. In fact, I liked all the actors, with the exception of Jack Weston. He struck me as way more impatient than Meyer Meyer is supposed to be (to say nothing of the fact that Jack Weston wasn’t bald enough). The director did a good job, working in that Robert Altman overlapping-dialogue style. Finally, I noticed that there were precious few Bahst’n accents on display, despite what the patch said on all the cops’ shoulders–a fact that added to my feeling of watching a (very good) tv show. (Barney Miller vibe again)

    • Thanks for that Jack, greatly appreciated. Visually it has that kind of flat look I suppose (imagine this could have been had Brian De Palma not left the production) though I don’t mind that as it is just so true of so many titles of the era. Reynolds physically is a good match for Carella (especially without the moustache) but I agree, he is probably not as engaging as he could be. Glad you enjoyed it overall – you’ve definitely made me want to go and watch it all over again now!

  18. justjack says:

    Sergio, I don’t know where else to put this new comment, but it’s sort of related so here goes. I’ve just finished reading “Let’s Hear It For The Deaf Man,” the first Ed McBain novel I’ve read since seeing “Fuzz.” In my mind’s eye and ear, all the characters are still the way I imagined them before seeing the movie, with one exception. Now I hear Yul Brinner’s voice when I read the Deaf Man’s dialogue. And I laughed out loud at the terrific inside joke that McBain dropped in, when he has the Deaf Man tells his henchman to wear a disguise that will make him look “like Yul Brinner.” I really expected to not like the 87th Precinct novels as much once the 70′s began, but it seems instead that with books like Shotgun, Jigsaw, Hail, Hail the Gang’s All Here, and Sadie When She Died, McBain has entered a period of greatness .

    • Thanks for all that Jack – I’m reviewing Jigsaw very shortly but I agree, the series really picks up tremendously with the one that followed, Hail Hail and then remains at a superior level until the terrific Blood Relatives (indeed Sadie may be my absolute favourite) though I do feel, based on my recollections of the books, that it dipped somewhat after that as the books got longer. Thanks again for the great feedback and insight.

    • PS And yes, love the Brynner in-joke – McBain even made fun of his alter ego, Evan Hunter, in Shotgun by having a character say the didn’t like a film he wrote (which just so happens to be Hitchcock’s The Birds!)

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