This 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 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?”
The 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: