BREAD (1974) by Ed McBain

McBain-Bread-panAfter much too long a break, Cotton Hawes is brought back centre-stage for this story involving drugs, porn, insurance scams, pyromania and a few murders. It also gives a pungent, heartfelt depiction of the degradation of the slums of the city – and introduces a new if often repellent character to the roster of regulars … get ready to say hello to ‘Fat’ Ollie Weeks.

“People in America keep guns the way Englishmen keep pussycats”

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.

Bread (87th Precinct series #29)
First Published: 1974
Leading players: Cotton Hawes, Steve Carella, Andy Parker, Arthur Brown, Monoghan & Monroe, Fat Ollie Weeks, Dave Murchison

After the disappointing Hail to the Chief, a brave but ultimately failed experiment that was in every sense one of the thinnest and slimmest volumes in the series, we bounce back with a much more robust and substantial entry (the book is about 40% longer). First and foremost it brings back Cotton Hawes, who amazingly hadn’t appeared as the lead character in the series for ten years since his appearance in Axe way back in 1964. For another it introduces “Fat” Ollie Weeks, a detective just as bigoted and unpleasant as Andy Parker (and Roger Havilland as was, back in the 1950s) but who makes up for this in part by actually being a pretty assiduous cop. It also, very unusually, focuses just on one plot – or rather, has two concurrent plots that then ultimately merge surprisingly and in a very satisfying way to reveal a single but very complex pattern. We begin with one of Andy Parker’s disgruntled customers …

“Sure thing, Steve, What time do you want me there?”
“Ten o’clock too early?”
“No, no, fine,” Hawes said, and looked at the clock and sighed.

McBain-Bread-pan2It’s the middle of August and things are very hot indeed, especially for Roger Grimm, whose warehouse just got burned to the ground with half a million in imported wooden toys inside. Carella ‘inherits’ the case as Andy Parker and Bert Kling, who originally investigated the case, are both away for the Summer holidays – and Grimm can’t make an insurance claim without a police report that confirms it was arson. The watchmen were drugged before the fire was set and Carella thinks it may have been an inside job. Then Frank Reardon, one of the guards, is shot to death by Charlie Harrod, a man with a history in the drugs business, but who was also working as a photographer for a  pair of businessmen looking to bring investment and regeneration to their slums and on whose doorstep his body is later found. This brings Hawes into contact with Weeks, an awesomely racist cop working at the 83rd – they go to interview the businessmen who employed Harrod to take photographs of buildings that could be renovated and Weeks – who just hates ‘jigs’ – quickly attacks one of them. For Hawes it’s hate at first sight:

“Dave, this is Cotton Hawes. We’ve got a police officer manhandling a witness here – unnecessary use of force and abuse of authority. Let me talk to the lieutenant, please.”

“Whose side are you on, anyway?” Ollie said, but he released Worthy’s shirt front.

The annoying part is not only that Weeks is unable to see that what he is doing is wrong, but that his instincts are right and the businessmen are in fact up to no good. Weeks maybe be a racist but even Carella has to admit that he is a very thorough cop. This helps make the character a bit more complex when compared with the likes of Parker and the very late Havilland if not exactly less odious. To try and break the case pressure is applied to Harrod’s girlfriend, Elizabeth, who had been used to bait Frank into taking part in the scheme. But after Harrod’s death, and realising that she is under tape surveillance (from, it turns out, the drugs squad), all she wants to do is get out of town. The 70s jargon sticks out a bit here but she makes for a fascinating character, a casualty in an internecine scheme where nobody seems to be able to truly see the full picture:

“Reason I’m getting out of this city,” Elizabeth said, “is because I don’t want anybody talking about a dead girl named me.”

McBain-Bread-warnerThe case is an unusually complex one in which arson, murder, drug smuggling, porn and prostitution all combine into a single narrative – but it finally does coalesce, together with a genuinely thoughtful and heartfelt polemic on the state of inner city despair and disrepair. In fact several pages are devoted to the slums of ‘Diamondback’ (the equivalent of Harlem in McBain’s world, in which ‘Isola’ in Manhattan, ‘Riverhead’ is The Bronx, ‘Majesta’ is Queens etc.):

“The way Hawes looked at it, slums were at least dying, if not already dead. The idea depressed and angered him as much as any assault or homicide would.

It would be wrong to spoil the story any further but this is definitely one of the best of the series from this decade for its deft plotting and strong characterisation as well as for its strong feeling for time and place – but with its longer length it was also a harbinger of things to come. The 87th Precinct novels were about to get longer and longer as the book trade changed to compete with TV and the end of shorter fiction markets. The slim, Simenon-length police procedurals that McBain excelled at would have to be replaced by tomes that were perceived as offering better value with a more substantial page count and more complex storylines. This would be something of a mixed blessing, as we shall see. But there was at least one more classic in the series to come in the shorter ‘mode’ in the shape of Blood Relatives (1975), coming to this blog very shortly …

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


***** (4 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.

31 Responses to BREAD (1974) by Ed McBain

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Excellent review. I always had mixed thoughts about the lengthening of the books, as the concision of the early ones was so sharp. Nevertheless, McBain can always be relied upon to draw together all the threads of his story in a satisfying way!

    • Thanks Karen – if he’d stayed at this sort of length (about 200 pages or so) I;d have been a lot happier, it’s got to be said – I approach these later books with some trepidation – let’s see if my memory cheated!

  2. Colin says:

    So, the cut off point of sorts. I do wish, after all this time, both publishers and readers would catch on to the fact that more pages does not necessarily equate to either better value or a better book. Complexity is fine but if it’s of the contrived variety, existing merely for its own sake, then I tend to say pass.

    • There are about three more of the shorter books during the decade (including the next, the very good BLOOD RELATIVES), and then that was pretty much it. Don’t get me wrong, more McBain is not necessarily a bad thing per se and we are not talking Arthur Hailey / Tom Clancy length – but the page-count pretty much doubled and for the most part, not to its advantage – shame …

      • Colin says:

        Fair enough. I was referring more to the general trend among publishers, and the way we, as readers, seemed to buy into this concept so readily. Traveling on the train most days, I see people take a seat next to me and then haul a massive tome of biblical proportions out of their bag. There’s just no way most stories require that kind of page count.

        • I completely agree (sure, we’ve gone over this before, but …) – I just can’t understand it either. In fact, even though there are some very lengthy books that I think are amazing (The Woman in White, Anna Karenina, A Prayer for Owen Meany etc.), I wouldn’t want to even try and read them on a commute – with all the interruptions it’s just the wrong environment to try and really concentrate. I could never really understand the desire to read endlessly long Clancy books in partcular os thos ebrick-shaped Patterson thrillers that everyone sems to be mad about …

          • Colin says:

            Yes, I think we have done this before. Anyway, we’re reading off the same page, so to speak, on this one.

            Frankly, I can’t read anything much while commuting. If it’s not the train lurching around it’s the other travelers jostling me, or the never ending stream of beggars pouring out tales of woe, or accordion playing gypsies!

          • This is actually one of the main reasons I got into radio / audio drama. Glad to say though that at present I manage to keep accordionists down to a minimum by dodging main commuter hours (I’m on the train by 7AM or earlier most days) 🙂

          • Colin says:

            Working mainly evenings and nights means I’m still safely tucked up in bed at the ungodly hour of 7am!

            The downside of course is traveling with the accompaniment of yet another middle European serenade. Sometimes I worry I’ve strayed into a Universal picture from the 1930s!

          • Now I have this in my mind 🙂

          • Colin says:

            Well all I’m saying is I never leave home without a clove of garlic in my pocket!

          • So much for the romance of travel … mind you, don’t let my Dad catch you with garlic, he’ll eat it in a flash! But seriously folks, one of the things that really appealed to me about this volume was the way that it tried to capture what New York city was like at the time, which was pretty messed up – some fascinating snaps of the era by Leland Bobbe can be found here and here.

          • Colin says:

            Yes, NY is a very different place today, and it’s always fascinating to be reminded just how much things have changed.

          • I went to an honest-to–goodness 35mm screening of Serpico the other week and it’s a terrific flick till but the images of the city of the late 60s, early 70s was stark an fascinating but darn if it didn’t feel like my upbringing in Rome – now it’s all gentrified and doesn’t feel remotely as real.

          • Colin says:

            Yes, that grungy, lived-in feel of the 70s has passed into history now. It’s good that films, and books like this, can transport us back for a time though.

          • I was truly surprised by how nostalgic it made me feel actually – porbably an age thing …

  3. Margot Kinberg says:

    Sergio – Such a great review! I agree completely that this one has some rich substance to it. And the addition of Ollie also adds something to the series – it really does. Your post makes me remember too how much wit and solid dialogue there is in this series. Hunter/McBain did such a wonderful job I think writing dialogue.

  4. Quite a heady mix for a plot, Sergio. McBain’s impressions of the state of inner cities should be interesting given that urban slums are a universal problem. I’d probably have no grouse with a lengthy McBain novel. In his case it’d be more justified than not.

  5. TracyK says:

    Another great McBain review, Sergio. You are already over halfway through the series. I am looking forward to reading some more of these; I am still at the early ones.

    • Thanks TracyK – I am making a concerted effort to make a bit more headway as it turns out that I have been reviewing these for nearly 3 years, which is much longer than I anticipated!

  6. justjack says:

    Great book, great review. What a pleasure to have Cotton back. And what an interesting guy is Fat Ollie. I love that is actually a good detective; it means that the others have to find a way to co-exist with this guy who on a personal level is a miserable human being. It always bothered me when a character like Andy Parker can be so easily dismissed because there’s nothing redeeming about him. I felt the same way about Frank Burns in the tv version of M*A*S*H. Much too easy of a character to be able to sneer at. And at the end, when Fat Ollie said, “gee, I like working with you guys! I think I’ll transfer to the 87th,” I just laughed out loud at that.

    • Well said Jack! and spot on because in M*A*S*H* they very smartly replaced Burns with the similar but more vulnerable Winchester and I agree, this works in a similar way

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  10. Hank says:

    Fat Ollie Weeks…I was never quite sure what to make of him–I liked how his investigative skills tended to somewhat redeem him, although McBain also often tended to use the character as a personal mouthpiece (his rant about “Hill Street Blues”–and his later rant about Amazon reviews).

    However, “Bread” didn’t need a lot of added hijinks from McBain’s cast of characters–this one, as you mentioned, had one of his more ingeniously plotted crime schemes going for it. Twenty years later, McBain would re-imagine at least one aspect of this scheme (I won’t say what part!) in a Matthew Hope novel, “There Was A Little Girl”.

    • Thanks for that Hank. Weeks feels like a nicer version of Parker – he says things that are just as nasty but somehow isn’t really nasty (because he doesn;t mean to be?) – and as you ssay, at least he is very good at police work, though thatis hardly a holistic approach to policing, is it 🙂 Speaking of the Hope series, I will be reviewing the cross-over book, The Last Best Hope, but that’s a little way off still …

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