After 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.
It’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.”
The 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: