This is one of the most admired books in the 87th Precinct series by Ed McBain (aka Evan Hunter) and was included in the Crime Writer’s Association top 100 mysteries list that Rich has been looking at over at his Past Offences blog.
“As they spoke, Carella knew with renewed dizzying certainty that Gerald Fletcher had killed his wife”
After Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here! where over a dozen plots flowed in an out of each other, McBain next opted for a complete contrast. Sadie concentrates on one case and Carella knows whodunit from the first page – the problem is proving it.
Sadie When She Died (87th Precinct series #26)
First Published: 1972
Leading players: Steve Carella, Bert Kling, Meyer Meyer, Arthur Brown, Peter Byrnes
It is Christmas 1972 and one evening prominent lawyer Gerald Fletcher comes home from work to find his wife has been stabbed. When the police arrive he seems not in the least perturbed about the fact that she just died in agony – quite the opposite in fact, he is incapable of disguising his pleasure at her passing!
“I repeat that my wife was a no-good bitch, and I’m delighted someone killed her.”
Carella and Kling are assigned to the case and thanks to a thorough forensic investigation and an eye-witness, they are soon able to find the poor junkie who broke into the apartment and stabbed Sarah Fletcher. The man was desperate for money to get his next fix and in his delirium attacked the woman when he unexpectedly found her in the apartment. The case is thus quickly solved and Fletcher takes Carella out to celebrate. Carella finds the high-powered attorney very hard to figure – his instincts tell him that Fletcher is somehow involved, but the junkie’s sad story is clearly true – so why doesn’t it all add up in his mind? And why does Fletcher keep inviting Carella out to go eating and drinking? It seems as if he is toying with the detective …
“Reading another man’s love letters is like eating Chinese food alone.”
Carella decides to investigates the background of Sarah and Gerald Fletcher and discovers that both had secret lives that might explain why she ended up dead. This is the main story and there is only one subplot, though it is a significant one: Bert Kling, perpetually unlucky in love, has just been dumped by Cindy Forrest, his girlfriend since Eighty Million Eyes (six years and five novels ago); on the rebound he becomes interested in the eyewitnesses to the Fletcher crime. Although strangely cagey about her frequently absent boyfriend, the two go out on a few dates – but when he tries to find out more about the mystery man, he nearly gets killed for his trouble.
“The chances of getting out of here alive seemed exceedingly slim to Detective Bert Kling.”
Kling ends up in hospital but eventually manages to track down the men who beat him up and discovers just why they did it. Meanwhile Carella puts Fletcher under 24-hour surveillance, having him followed everywhere he goes and even putting bugs in the man’s apartment and even in his chauffeur-driven car. He discovers that he has a mistress who now wants to become the new Mrs Fletcher. But is Gerald aware that his conversations are being listened to – and can what he says, even in private, really be trusted? Ultimately this leads to a solution that is both logical, unexpected and psychologically penetrating. This is a book where perhaps the influence of Georges Simenon can be discerned with its strong emphasis on character and the lack of judgement over people’s actions. It also delivers a tragic conclusion in its final page that is shocking and very well judged. I included this book in my (still developing) list of Top 100 Mysteries and upon re-reading it see no reason to change that – it is without doubt one of the finest books in the 87th Precinct series (for the list of my previous reviews and a full listing of the 55 volumes, click here).