HAIL TO THE CHIEF (1973) by Ed McBain

McBain-Hail-to-the-Chief.pbThis story of rival gangs plays some interesting narrative tricks and demonstrates an unusually strong satirical and political edge but is usually seen as one of the weaker entries in  the 87th Precinct series. How does is stand up today?

“Why? What do you mean, ‘why’? I’m the President, that’s why. I’m the elected leader, I can do what I want.”

The following review is offered (slightly in advance) as part of Patti Abbott’s celebration of Ed McBain this Friday over at her fab Pattinase blog and Bev’s 2014 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge.

Hail to the Chief (87th Precinct series #28)
First Published: 1973
Leading players: Steve Carella, Bert Kling, Meyer Meyer, Dave Murchison

It is January 1973, barely a month after the events of the previous book in the series, Sadie When She Died. That book remains one of the best in the 87th Precinct series (and which I previously reviewed here) and was a chamber piece with just a few characters. Here we are offered a grand panorama encompassing warfare between three different gangs and sees the author going for something much more ambitious. We begin with the discovery of six dead bodies, including a baby, thrown naked into a pit and Carella and Kling are the unlucky cops who have to try and figure out who they are and who is responsible.

“In many respects a dead and naked human being is no more easily identifiable than a slab of beef hanging in a butcher shop”

McBain-Hail-to-the-Chief.RHhbMcBain darts around with the narrative here for ironic effect – we open with the discovery of the bodies on January 6, when any hope if identification seems slim, then jumps forward to the confession of the perpetrator 8 days later, and then backtrack to see how they managed to crack this case. Along the way, cutting back regularly to the confession, many people will die and it very quickly becomes clear that the author expects the reader to draw parallels with the conflict in Vietnam. To hammer the point home, as we return to the confession of the gang leader responsible for the deaths we learn that his full name is Randall M. Nesbitt … and here is how he is described:

“… dark hair and dark brooding eyes and a sloping, bulbous nose, and heavy jowls …”

Not a very subtle allusion to he similarly named Richard Millhouse Nixon, who was then still president (the book came out in September 1973), though not for much longer after the Watergate scandal, which also revealed how the President had been planning to wiretap the Democratic Party’s headquarters, an episode that is also reflected in the novel when one gang plants a wire on another to try and scupper their plans – as their leader puts it:

“The way I figure it, if we can put in a bug, why then, anybody in the whole United States can out one in. What’s to stop them?”

McBain-Hail-to-the-Chief-signetThe book follows the investigation into the six initial murders, linked to warfare between three gangs – the Puerto Rican ‘Death’s Heads’, the black ‘Scarlet Avengers’ and the WASP ‘Yankee Rebels’ – and ultimately culminates in a full-out battle between them all in the streets of New York. This certainly makes for an unusual entry in the series, and is handled with the author’s customary skill in terms of dialogue and construction, but there is no denying that the allegorical elements are, for want of a better phrase, too on the nose, too thin and obvious, to really carry much weight. The 87th series has many virtues and is certainly flexible but here proves itself unable to sustain the weight of such weighty contemporary issues it tries to reflect, though with his usual élan, McBain does at least puncture this a little with a subplot involving Meyer and a journalist who wants his opinion on the impact of screen violence on the viewer. The detective of course points out that things are much tougher on the streets than they are on TV, though it is now generally though that it was the daily reports on the tube that helped change attitudes to the US presence in Vietnam …

A noble attempt then and full marks for ambition, but artistically a bit of a failure none the less. Shame.

The following review is offered as part of Bev’s 2014 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘pseudonym’ category:


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

This entry was posted in 2014 Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo, 87th Precinct, Ed McBain, Friday's Forgotten Book, New York, Police procedural. Bookmark the permalink.

37 Responses to HAIL TO THE CHIEF (1973) by Ed McBain

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Sergio – A thoughtful and interesting review, as ever! You make such a well-taken point about the way that McBain uses allegory here. Perhaps he felt some of what was going on so keenly that he found it harder to wrap it up in effective storytelling? I could be wrong of course, but I wonder. In any case, McBain at his weakest is better than a lot of people at their best.

  2. It’s such a shame that the ebooks released in the series has got so many gaps in it, otherwise I’d have started following it a longtime ago. Keep up the great reviews, I’ll get round to the books eventually.

    • Cheers matey – I wonder why they are not being consistent?

      • Copyright? It seems none of the Deaf Man books are reissued, which you’d have thought would have been top of the list.

        • That is weird actually – shouldn’t really be a problem as the McBain books were all published by the same firm for at least thirty years but perhaps the rights lapsed? No idea if the selling of the film rights to the second Deaf Man caper, Fuzz, has any bearing … it really shouldn’t. I just thought it had something to do with whether they had the digital files to hand frankly!

          • Slight correction – the first thirteen books are available, with the exception of Killer’s Choice – then a couple of odd ones and then everything from Bread to Lightning and then a bunch of the recent ones. It looks more to me that the rights were sold in batches – they’re all from the same publisher so I don’t understand the omissions at all. But the first and last Deaf Man books are available.

          • Thanks Steve – looks like they just had some issues to iron out then if its just the odd one here and there – shame about KILLER’S CHOICE though, I remember liking that one a lot!

          • No, it’s two almost continuous chunks but large gaps between them. Only about half the books are available as ebooks. Who knows?

          • Well, let’s hope they remedy it – they’d be daft not to, though mostly it makes very little difference in terms of chronology apart from Kling’s ever-changing girlfriends – he is SO unlucky in love … well, or jinxed anyway!

  3. Colin says:

    This sounds like a not entirely successful experiment, in need of a lighter, less obvious touch. Not one of the series essentials then I guess?

    • It’s generally considered a failure I think due to it having too heavy a hand – the climactic gang fight is described with great vigour and has an appropriately warlike feel – not subtle enough to persuade but full of fascinating points to us McBain fans however 🙂

      • Colin says:

        That’s the sense I got from your post – one for completists rather than newbies of casual readers.

        • Absolutely – definitely much better places to jump on – at some point I will have to do a rundown of favourites once I get a bit nearer the end of this self-imposed challenge – only another 27 books to go (this is the exact halfway mark in fact)

          • Colin says:

            Good idea, but a while off I guess – roll on 2017.

          • You know, at the current pace, that would be correct! However, I have made arrangements to shorten this as two more McBain reviews are coming in this week to coincide with Patti’s meme on Friday and I have another trio due in around Easter – not that I;m not enjoying myself but I never thought I would get so off course – but then, I do seem to get distracted a lot, don’t I …

          • Colin says:

            That’s the stuff! I’m struggling to get a post off every ten days or so, if I’m being optimistic. I’m developing the attention span of a hyperactive goldfish.
            Anyway, what was that about distraction?

          • I like the sound of that goldfish!

  4. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Well, I haven’t read this since my teens and I confess I completely missed the allegory at the time – now I really must dig it out and re-read!

    • I t si certainly interesting to read it forty years after the event – I wounder what other crime novels of the era reflected the Watergate era?

      • Roger says:

        Muriel Spark’s The Abbess of Crewe features a nunnery where the Abbess is taping and blackmailing all the sisters. Again, not one of her better books…

        • Thanks Roger – never read that one but really glad to hear of it – been ages since I read anything by her (she was almost a neighbour of ours for a long time, lived up the road from us (more or less) in Italy) – cheers.

  5. justjack says:

    Yes, far, far too on the nose, too worried about making the political point. What a relief when I finally got to the end of the book. I immediately picked up the next one in the series (“Bread”) so that I could get the taste of this one out of my mouth. I think that the final test of its weakness as an entry in the series is that so far it’s the only one that I would say it’s okay if you skip.

  6. TracyK says:

    I have got to speed up my reading of Ed McBain books. Although speeding up my reading doesn’t seem to be working right now in any area. Doesn’t sound like the best in the series, but would certainly be interesting to me. Although often these things go right over my head.

    • I think the problem here is just how unsubtle it is TracyK! But there are so many great McBain books out there, so on to the next (Bread, which one one of the best from the 70s in fact).

  7. steve says:

    I have to say that of the 87th precinct novels i have read (around 35) this was the one i was most disappointed with, especially coming straight after one of the best in SADIE WHEN SHE DIED. I have no problem with Mcbain experimenting with his formula but this one just didn’t work for me. I have yet to read BREAD but from what you say it seems the series gets right back on track. Looking forward to that review. Just a quick mention to say what a fantastic job you have done in reviewing this brilliant series.

    • Thanks Steve, very kind of you. Yes, it is rather a cruel juxtaposition (in fact, Hail to the Chief comes out badly whether you move immediately forwards or backwards!) but in such a hugely long series this is bound to happen, right? The comparative failures like this and ’til Death are very easy to spot after all.

  8. Sergio, it was interesting to read that McBain reveals the identity of the killer in advance and still hold the reader’s interest in the rest of the story. Not many writers can carry that off, I think. Thanks for reminding me of the McBain FFB over at Patti’s although I don’t think I’ll have a review ready by then. I’d forgot all about it. Meanwhile, my pile of Ed McBains continues to grow and all I have to do is get down to reading them one by one.

    • Thanks Prashant. Very heartening to hear that you have a nice pile of McBains! He experimented greatly with the series but his professionalism saw him through even occasional bumps in the road like this one.

  9. Pingback: Women’s Mystery Month? Classic crime in the blogosphere: March 2014 | Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction

  10. Hank says:

    I actually re-read this one today–these blog posts inspired me to reach into my storage container of musty McBain mass-market paperbacks, pull one out at random and read it. HTTC is the title I picked.

    I remembered this novel as being something of a misfire, mostly because the first time I read it, the non-linear timeline confused me at first. However, in re-reading today, I actually admired how McBain was able to enhance his narrative by manipulating the timeline of events, allowing events to unfold in a far more interesting way, although it still requires the reader to play closer attention than usual..

    As to the allegory at play here….forty years later, it isn’t quite clear exactly what point McBain was trying to make–I get the bit about the street gangs fighting a pointless war, and none of the “soldiers” is aware of its origins, and the bugging of the enemy headquarters, but for the most part, the allegory doesn’t seem to go anywhere–if the “Yankee Rebels” are supposed to represent U.S. troops, was McBain implying that Nixon’s goal was to use the war to kill off both the North and South Vietnamese? Midge’s name is Margaret McNally, who may or may not be a stand-in for Martha Mitchell, the big-mouthed wife of Nixon’s Attorney General…so wait, is Chingo supposed to be Chuck Colson? In which case, who’s supposed to be Haldeman? And is McBain trying to say anything in particular about Nixon by portraying his “Nixon” as a racist, mysoginystic, neo-Confederate gangster (but, oddly, not an anti-Semite, which history has documented that Nixon clearly was…)? Or did McBain simply hate Nixon and oppose the war in Vietnam?

    Another possible, and not-entirely latent allegory is the Manson family, to the extent that the connection, whether intended by McBain or not, is actually reasonable: Manson, like Nesbitt, was able to orchestrate mass murder.by manipulating his followers. Was McBain trying to compare Nixon to Manson (or vice-versa?) Who knows…the chapter in which Meyer’s rape lecture is juxtaposed with the discovery of the house where Midge had been held is yet another chunk of text which seems fraught with symbolism that I’m not quite grasping. Midge wasn’t being raped, but she was being victimized so…what connection am I failing to make?

    BUT–all that said–because none of this allegory, obvious as it may be, has never made much sense to me at all, I actually find it rather easy to ignore it and just concentrate on the story at hand, as it unfolds, on its own terms. And yes, today I actually enjoyed re-reading “Hail To The Chief” more than I thought I would..While the idea of an inner-city W.A.S.P. street gang seems implausible, if not ridiculous, McBain’s vivid portrayal of Nesbitt’s megalomania makes it seem at least tenable.

    So no–not a great 87th Precinct mystery, but reasonably effective to the extent that one is able to tune out all the symbolism.

    • I did not pick up on a possible link to the Manson case, that is a really interesting idea. I suspect though that it’s not us that’s confused! The parallels are so superficially over that to me it is less an allegory but just a half-baked critique. I think it is incredibly unusual for a successful series of books like this, so though it is ultimately an uneasy failure as both a story of urban warfare and a political satire (neither fish nor fowl), it deserves kudos for even trying. But that’s kind of the problem of using this forum. Hunter just didn’t give himself anything like enough time to really finesse the idea in a subtle way – the books were meant to be short, sharp entertainments and he was writing maybe 3 or 4 Hunter or McBain books a year at that point and working as a screenwriter too (and going through an expensive divorce), so this is probably what you end up with – a very interesting concept and some stuff that works and some that doesn’t. As always, thanks for the great comments here Hank. In my own way I am revisiting my own reviews this way too 🙂

      • Hank says:

        “Half-baked critique”–Thank you–you summed it up better in three words I did in multiple paragraphs.

        One additional thought that occurred to me about HTTC: Take away the Nixon allegory, the payphones and the handwritten snail-mail correspondence, and what remains is actually a fairly timeless story. Cops and street gangs are still with us, of course; add a sociopathic character like Nesbitt to the mix, and the results would likely be the same in any historical era.

        Now that I’m suddenly re-reading McBain for the first time in a decade, part of me wants to see if there is a “typical” McBain villain–to a certain extent, I’m sure McBain was constrained by the requirements of the standard mystery formula to create bad guys who were either (a) ordinary citizens with hidden motives; (b) career criminals with distinctive M.O.’s; or (c) brilliant sociopaths orchestrating elaborate schemes (usually the Deaf Man). Nesbitt, on the other hand, would appear to be that rare McBain villain with no elaborate motive such as money or sex–and by his own admission, his ultimate scheme was hardly brilliant, as it was foiled, both by the police and by one of the rival gangs.

        The question is: did McBain come up with the idea of the Nesbitt character organically and then apply the Nixon elements, or did the character evolve from an initial idea to create a gang leader character to use as a Nixon allegory? I suspect the latter, as Nesbitt remains an anomaly in the McBain universe, indicating perhaps that McBain used a idea process in developing the character. I’d be interested to know if McBain ever discussed HTTC at any length in an interview.

        So while it’s not unfair to dismiss HTTC as a failed experiment–it’s not McBain for beginners–on a certain level, it’s a fascinating failure. I certainly enjoyed reading it yesterday much more than I did reading it for the first time back in 1990.

        • I think you are right Handk – it is probably better on a re-read once you have an idea of what it will be like going in, and can enjoy its peculiar approach to topical politics 🙂 Given the success of the Hunter books in the 50s relating to gang culture, one imagines that this was an area that could be called up very quickly for a McBain, so I always assumed the book started with the Nixon element and the rest was built around it.

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