JIGSAW (1970) by Ed McBain

McBain-Jigsaw-panThe 87th Precinct series reaches the decade that fashion sense forgot in a quirky and profane story of prejudice and stereotypes where the squad’s only black officer, Arthur Brown, finally takes centre stage. Built around a bizarre treasure hunt, this novel later served as the basis for a highly atypical episode of my favourite American detective show, Columbo. It all starts with two men killing each other over a photo fragment cut into the shape of a jigsaw piece …

I offer the following review as part of the 2013 Book to Movie Challenge at the Doing Dewey blog – for links, click here; and Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott, which today is being hosted by B.V. Lawson over at her In Reference to Murder blog.

Jigsaw (87th Precinct series #24)
First Published: 1970
Leading players: Arthur Brown, Steve Carella, Peter Byrnes, Cotton Hawes, Meyer Meyer, Monoghan & Monroe, Teddy Carella

“Guy comes in here with a story,” Byrnes said, “what does he expect us to do? Drop everything and go on a goddamn treasure hunt?”

The case seems open and shut – a burglar broke in and killed the occupant, who was able to kill his assailant before also dying. The only oddity is this small part of a photo cut into the shape of a piece of a jigsaw puzzle. Brown and Carella think it’s over but then get a visit from Irving Krutch, an insurance investigator still working on his own time on a 6-year-old bank robbery. The thieves were all killed in a shootout with the cops but the loot – $750,000 to be exact – was never recovered, so his company had to pay up and he lost serious traction on the career ladder as a result. He thinks all the segments of the photo when slotted together McBain-Jigsaw-signetwill show the place where the cash was buried. Krutch has a partial list of people he believes were given the other segments of the photo – and has one of his own that he got with the partial list. Carella and Brown find a third piece hidden in the apartment where the two men killed each other. Brown goes undercover as ‘Arthur Stokes’ to try and get some of the other pieces by teaming with a crook also looking for the loot. Before long Brown gets coshed and his low-life partner is killed. Brown figures that one of the pieces may be held by Geraldine, the ex-mistress of the leader of the bank robbers. But she sees through him right away …

“Sure, look at Superspade,” Gerry said, and smiled. “Faster than a rolling water-melon, able to leap tall honkies in a single bound …”
“… who is in reality,” Brown continued, “mild-mannered Arthur Stokes of Ebony magazine.”

This is by necessity a fairly episodic story as Brown and Carella accumulate several pieces of the puzzle while bodies pile up and one imagines that McBain would have created as many segments as he needed to bring the book up to length – at the same time there is a sense of jeopardy as it seems that someone is competing with them to get to the money, killing other likely pretenders along the way. The reveal of the villain is, frankly, no surprise at all and the method by which Brown exposes the guilty party is pretty outrageous, preying on the prejudices of a woman he assumes will be a racist simply because she is from the South. On the other hand, this is what gives the book its flavour – not its by-the-numbers plot but its focus on various stereotypes (gay, straight, black, white) – and McBain-Jigsawthe prejudices that Brown in particular encounters. The language used is the strongest yet in the series and it is clear that while there is much humour, this is also a book with a message and the use of various racial epithets and unpleasant scenarios (like a prostitute who apparently will only go with white men no matter how green the colour of a customer’s money) all help get the point across. So, Arthur Brown finally emerges as a character in his own right in the service of a story that attacks bigotry in a (slightly) concealed manner – it’s not all good but there is a real design at work here and one that is certainly memorable even if it has to share space with some crudities too.

For another detailed review of this book, see what Admiral Ironbombs has to say over at his blog Battered, Tattered, Yellowed and Creased as well as Curt Evans’ focus on the book’s finale and its racial overtones at The Passing Tramp. For a full list of the 87th Precinct mysteries, with links to my reviews, click here. To find out more about the late Evan Hunter and his books as ‘Ed McBain’, visit www.edmcbain.com/

Columbo-Undercover01

In 1994 the novel served as the basis for perhaps the most unusual episode of Columbo ever produced, here retaining the Brown character but otherwise dumping the 87th and transposing the story from the East Coast to the LAPD. If truth be told, while the adaptation by the late Gerry Day (an industry veteran who passed away in February – there is a typically detailed review of her career by Stephen Bowie over at the Classic TV History Blog) is often remarkably faithful (in fact they even retained the segments of the photo used in the book), this actually works against the show. For starters, such fidelity means that this remains a whodunit, virtually unheard of in Columbo (there were a couple of clever exceptions in the 70s) where nearly always we know who the murderer is from the outset. But it is Columbo rather than Brown (played by Harrison Page) who goes undercover – and it is here that things get weird as Peter Falk adopts a variety of disguises as he tries to find the pieces of the puzzle.

Columbo-Undercover05

This is an episode that could only have been made very late in the run – it has several in-jokes and is very broad in its humour and I have to say, when I first watched it, I was shocked by it. It feels completely indulgent, with Falk the actor being served rather than the Columbo character, while the tone is essentially jokey, though there is a nice scene with Tyne Daly as a cheerful prostitute (Daly had recently played a murderess on the show so was probably doing this as a favour); Shera Danese, Falk’s wife and a frequent co-star, also appears as Geraldine. In both cases the abrasive language and racist sentiments are completely removed in favour of a more comedic approach. Now that Falk is no longer with us and no more episodes will be made, I look on it with a little more indulgence. Yes, it does feel like a jolly jape made by actors having a good time and not like an episode of the best detective show American TV ever produced; and Falk is so out of character playing a fedora-wearing gun-brandishing tough guy in some scenes that it makes for remarkably disconcerting viewing; and yes, the final clue, which is not from the book (understandably replacing its controversial climax), while much more in keeping with the Columbo format, is apparently not technically doable (i.e. getting a fingerprint off the surface of a coin is said to be impossible).

Columbo-Undercover02

But it is a fun episode too  - the ‘undercover’ section only takes up about half the episode (that is to say, 45 minutes) but otherwise Columbo is in his usual garb and makes for an amusing break in the format that takes a wild detour in the middle before coming back home again (in this sense it is typical of the later 2 hour episodes that tended to struggle to fill the running time anyway). In addition Harrison Page is very engaging as Brown while Ed Begley Jr brings his usual energy to his playing of Krutch, the insurance investigator who gets the story rolling. If you divorce Undercover from the series it belongs to then actually it is a fairly enjoyable and faithful adaptation of the novel, though unfortunately it does dispense with its thematic underpinning of intolerance and bigotry in society, which probably felt too thin and obvious 25 years later but which does also rob the book of its main raison d’être. For the list of my favourite Columbo episodes (and no, this is not among them), see my post In praise of Columbo.

DVD Availability: Available everywhere in very nice DVD editions with the Blu-ray can currently only be had in Japan as part an astonishingly expensive complete box set that I would love to be able to afford …

Columbo-Undercover06

Columbo Undercover / Columbo (1994)
Director: Vincent McEveety
Producer: Christopher N. Seiter
Screenplay:  Gerry Day
Cinematography: George Koblasa
Art Direction: Bill Ross
Music: Dick De Benedictis
Cast: Peter Falk, Ed Begley Jr, Harrison Page (as Arthur Brown), Shera Danese, Burt Young, Tyne Daly

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

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This entry was posted in 2013 Book to Movie Challenge, 87th Precinct, Columbo, Ed McBain, Friday's Forgotten Book, New York, Police procedural. Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to JIGSAW (1970) by Ed McBain

  1. justjack says:

    In 1994 I did not know who Ed McBain was, and when I read about the big hullaballoo over some of his stories being I adapted for Columbo, I didn’t know what to make of it. When I saw those episodes, I remember very strongly feeling that someone else’s story had been shoe-horned into a Columbo movie. I didn’t like it at the time; I haven’t looked at it since, and don’t know how I’d feel about it now.

    As for the book, I loved getting a chance to know Art Brown better, and overall enjoyed the story. I get a *huge* kick whenever McBain includes those puzzle pieces, or arrest reports, or hand-written notes, etc. I imagine the publisher bitching about the cost of reprinting, and McBain insisting, “or else I take my business elsewhere.” Heh!

    • I agree Jack, the use of various artefacts (arrest reports, identikits, scribbled pieces of paer etc) within the books, while probably a bit of a typographical nightmare, all definitely pat of the charm of the 87th Precinct series and, at a time when this kind of thing was much less common, really helped deliver that sense of every day verisimilitude.

  2. Sergio – Such a thorough, interesting and well-written discussion. It’s interesting; I loved Peter Falk as Columbo, andd I’m a fan of the Ed McBain series too. But to me, it never did work particularly well to blend them if you can call it that. Perhaps it’s because I’m a bit of purist , or perhaps its that the format just didn’t work. I’m not sure I just know that it never did do much for me.

    • Thanks Margot, but I agree, it was a weird idea and doesn’t really work (this one os the better of the two, without any doubt in my mind) so you have to forgive a lot to enjoy it, let;s put it that way!

  3. Colin says:

    Very interesting. Columbo just seemed so well suited to the inverted detective story format that any divergence positively jars. I don’t think I’ve seen this particular episode as I’m not as familiar with the later entries. I have the first 8 or 9 seasons on disc and I dip in and out from time to time.

    • The later episodes are, predictably, more variable, not least for the need to fill a 2-hour slot (well, OK, 94 minutes plus adverts) so you do get padding, as in the ‘undercover’ section here. Strictly speaking two of the ‘classic era’ episodes from the 70s are also whodunits, albeit disguised ones: Double Shock, guest starring the great Martin Landau and Salute to the Commodore, directed by Patrick McGoohan, both start off like regular episodes in which we think we know who the murderer is and then they very cleverly subvert all that.

      • Colin says:

        I’ve seen some of the later episodes on TV but they just didn’t work quite as well for me as the older stuff – probably the padding, as you say. I also got the impression that the guest stars weren’t quite as compelling.
        BTW, I watched Double Shock over the holidays,

        • I love that episode – a brilliant reversal on what should be a well-worn theme and what might, in less cunning hands, have felt like a ‘cheat’ but which in fact pays off beautifully I think thanks to a terrific script by Steve Bochco and the late Jackson Gillis.

          • Colin says:

            Agreed, there were some absolute corkers in those early seasons.

          • Just had to include this still:
            COLUMBO: DOUBLE SHOCK

          • justjack says:

            Sergio, that pic you posted of Martin Landau and Peter Falk brought a strong memory of watching that episode. Falk’s inability to talk and crack eggs at the same time, coupled with everyone’s unforced and natural laughter, makes me think he *really was* having trouble getting his lines out while performing his bit of business with the eggs.

          • I think you are right Jack – there was a lot of improvisation in non-plot related scenes like that and Mark Dawidziak in his invaluable book, The Columbo Phile, claims that it was largely an on-set creation.

  4. BV Lawson says:

    I’m heading off to dig up this episode of Columbo. I stopped watching the series later in the run (don’t remember why, now), and missed this one. I wasn’t even aware the show had based one of its episodes on a McBain book, but it is an intriguing pairing. Some of the more interesting episodes had such “odd” pairings like the Patrick McGoohan outings.

    • Thanks BV! Well, I’m not surprised you misssed this one (or its lesser cousin, Time To Die, taken from the later McBain novel, So Long As You Both Shall Live) as they were very late in the run and truly anomalous within the series – deliberately so, but failed experiments in my view. RIP Mrs Columbo in my view is one that, told in flashback, plays well with the formula and still manages to stick to the essential flavour of the show. The episodes with, and / or directed by McGoohan, are among my very favourites so I’m in complete agreement with you there!

  5. TracyK says:

    This was a fun post for both the McBain review and the Columbo info. I did not read every detail about the book in this review because I am way back at book #3 in the series and want to see the stories unfold without prior knowledge of the characters. Just a quirk I have. But I can see I have a lot to look forward to.

    We got all those later Columbos when they came out and were surprised at how much we enjoyed them. I can’t remember specifics, although I did know that one episode was an adaptation of a McBain book.

    • I know what you mean TracyK, I hate inadvertent spoilers especially as people seem to have very inconsistent (and sometimes inconsiderate) view of just what a ‘spoiler’ actually is. In this case, I promise, no character stuff gets spoiled but I cannot promise that with regards to many of my previous 87th Precinct reviews so you are right to keep your distance (but not too far I hope).

  6. John says:

    Great review as usual, Sergio. The only whodunit (one N!) in the Columbo series I remember is the one with Wilfrid-Hyde White and a bunch of people on an American yacht. I still enjoy catching some of the original 70s episodes on MeTV. The one with Donald Pleasance as a wine aficionado was on recently and Joe and I really liked it. I never knew about this McBain/Columbo connection. Fascinating. I’ll have to hunt down the episode like B.V. is doing.

    I’ll be interested in reading what you have to say about GHOSTS, one of the very odd entries in the 87th Precinct series that is also one of my favorites. But as you are going in chronological order I think I have a long wait ahead of me.

    • Yes, the one on the boat is Last Salute to the Commodore, directed by Patrick McGoohan in fact, with Robert Vaughn cast to resemble the obvious murderer before he gets bumped off! Yes, Ghosts is a bit way off but I am looking forward to that one – I am trying to speed up the rate of the McBain reviews actually as this is taking me a bit longer than anticipated!

  7. Yvette says:

    I’ve tried in the past to read Ed McBain but for whatever reason I’ve never succeeded. Plus I’m not a fan of Columbo – yes, I know I’m in the minority. There’s no accounting for taste, so don’t hate me. :)

    At any rate, I enjoyed reading your review, Sergio. Enjoyed reading about the tie-in too. Interesting combination. I’d never heard of it but then why would I?

    I do enjoy your enthusiasm, m’dear.

  8. Richard says:

    I only watched a few Columbo episodes, his dithering bothered me. I have yet to read a McBain, though I did pick up a few 87th precinct books to try. Just can’t seem to get around to them!

    • I love Columbo Richard, so probably not going to going to see eye to eye on this one (though I completely understand what you mean). McBain is better than most people give him credit for, though clearly the subject matter is now the stuff of most TV shows nowadays

  9. Kelly says:

    I had no idea McBain was adapted for Colombo. How weird that they made it into a joke-fest. I wonder what McBain thought about it?

    • McBain was a pretty pragmatic fellow when it came to film and TV adaptations of his work and he probably just liked the publicity! But I have no idea what he said about it publicly …

  10. Hi Sergio, this is excellent stuff as usual. You revived memories of the first McBain novel I read, not too long ago, and first lines that I’m unlikely to forget soon—”Detective Arthur Brown did not like being called black. This might have had something to do with his name, which was Brown. Or his colour, which was also brown.” It is such a saleable line. My memory isn’t what it used to be but I think this is the book in which Carella gets hurt badly and which, as you mention, allows Brown to undertake much of the investigation. You know, when I was reading this book I pictured actor Richard Gant as Arthur Brown. He has a cameo as a cop in BEAN the movie. You’ve displayed some fine covers, too, and I think my copy had the first one before I gave it away. I haven’t read many McBains but I like the special relationship that Brown and Carella share as homicide partners. Thanks for writing about the book’s adaptation into an episode of COLUMBO that I hadn’t heard of previously.

    • Thanks for all the kind words Prashant, as always. McBain did re-use that description over and over again in fact in his books – really glad you enjoyed the review – great to get all this fab feedback!

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  12. robert says:

    the Columbo episode was indeed not the best, but it was Columbo, so… :)
    I remember Harrison Page mostly for the tv series Sledge Hammer. It was quite funny at that time.

  13. Pingback: 2013 Book to Movie Challenge – completed | Tipping My Fedora

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