We really like Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct books here at Fedora and for the last couple of years have been re-reading them in chronological order (links to all the reviews can be found here). All are lively and engrossing, with some undeniably more successful than others. In much the same way that Steve Carella is first among equals within its range of corporate heroes, so this is one of my favourites among the later volumes. Indeed, for me the series here reached a peak that it would never quite be able to scale again. We start on a rain-soaked night and a pair of bloody palm prints …
“I hate knife wounds, don’t you?” Monoghan said.
I submit this review for Katie’s 2014 Book to Movie Challenge at Doing Dewey (for review links, click here); Bev’s 2014 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo; and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog, which today celebrates the work of Ed McBain (aka Evan Hunter).
Blood relatives (87th Precinct series #30)
First Published: 1975
Leading players: Steve Carella, Bert Kling, Monoghan, Meyer Meyer, Augusta Blair
Late one rain-swept September night, fifteen-year-old Patricia Lowery runs into the 87th, cut and bleeding. She and her cousin Muriel Stark were attacked while coming home from a party. Muriel’s dead body is found where the two girls had sheltered from the rain. Patricia tells Steve Carella how a stranger accosted them, made her cousin perform a sex act and then savagely knifed her to death. Steve and his partner Bert Kling start interviewing all known sex offenders in the area and eventually arrange a line-up for a suspect who fits Patricia’s general description but can’t come up with an alibi. She however identifies another man, who unfortunately turns out to be a policeman used to make up numbers in the line-up. Initially Patricia is adamant that he is definitely the man who attacked her, but this is not unexpected as the cops are sadly used to traumatised victims proving to be unreliable witnesses. Indeed her description seems a much better fit for Jack Armstrong, the new assistant manager at the bank where Muriel worked – only he has an alibi and Patricia has never actually met him so can’t have got confused either as she is sure that Muriel, who lived with the Lowery family after her parents were killed in an accident, never mentioned or described him to her. It turns out however that, despite being married and much older, Armstrong was quite interested in Muriel and one of the main themes of the book is how young love and burgeoning sexuality can also be twisted into something much darker and unsettling.
“In the distance, the green globes of the 87th Precinct shone through the rain and through the mist”
At Muriel’s funeral the most grief-stricken of the mourners unexpectedly proves to be Patricia’s brother Andrew, who throws himself on top of the coffin in a scene reminiscent of Hamlet. Shortly afterwards Patricia changes her story – now she says that in fact it was Andrew who attacked her and killed Muriel. Why has she changed her story? Were Andrew and Muriel more than friendly cousins? Why would he have attacked her? While Kling starts to plan his upcoming wedding to stunning model Augusta Blair, for Carella it’s time to hunt for hidden motives and unlock a diary’s not very secret code, leading to some scabrous humour to remind us that times they are a-changing, even for the 87th …
“Dvoojmjohvt was neither Dutch nor Swedish. Nor was it a voodoo curse. It was merely brilliant code, the kind any diarist hoped would be licked in six seconds flat. Such was the way of all diarists.”
Since the mid 1950s Evan Hunter as ‘Ed McBain’ had published thirty short and dynamic volumes in the 87th Precinct series, zesty stories with wit, suspense and always providing a great deal of variety in the subjects and ingenuity in the plotting. This is also one of these compact, very well calibrated, smaller-scale entries in the series but would be one of the very last of its type. The book trade was changing and such modest entertainment, facing increasing competition from TV and a slackening in sales, had to compete by becoming larger, longer and offering more ‘substantial’ value to the paying customer. This is to say the books got a lot longer and broader but they didn’t necessarily get better, so I look upon Blood Relatives as the best of the concluding batch of McBain titles published as per the original formulation. Well before the decade was out the style would have to be changed and there would be no turning back, for better or for worse.
This one has a sound plot, convincing characters and plenty of good dialogue – indeed long stretches of it consist of interview transcripts or diary entries and the author’s ear for creating singular and believable voices shines through again and again. It may not be the best of the series from this decade but ranks extremely high for the ingenious ways it flips reader expectations several times without becoming implausible for what is, at heart, a character study with a small and select dramatis personae. Hunter / McBain had seen many of his books adapted for TV and cinema and had written many screenplays himself by this time. When this book was adapted, it proved to be a faithful though highly unusual take, made by one the genre’s great director’s
“Your brilliant murders were for television, where the smart cop always tripped up the dumb crook who thought the cop was dumb but who was really dumb himself.”
French auteur Claude Chabrol – one of the main movers behind the nouvelle vague (aka the French new wave) in the 1950s and co-author, with fellow director Eric Rohmer, of the first serious study of the films of Alfred Hitchcock – probably adapted more great crime novels for the screen than any other major filmmaker. In a long, prolific and very productive career (that also included adaptations of Flaubert, de Beauvoir and Shakespeare), he made films from the novels of such varied mystery writers as Ruth Rendell, Ellery Queen, Nicholas Blake, Patricia Highsmith, Charlotte Armstrong, Richard Neely, Stanley Ellin and many more besides. I plan on reviewing some of these here at Fedora soon – but today is dedicated to Ed McBain and in 1978 Chabrol adapted Blood Relatives into the film of the same name, though unusually it was made in English and shot in Canada.
The adaptation is exceptionally faithful, following the plot, structure and dialogue of the book with remarkable closeness – and yet but the result is a rather peculiar movie none the less as it stresses the theme of child sexuality and how this can be corrupted. Even Carella’s young daughter hugs him and says they are like a couple. Donald Sutherland stars as Steve Carella (no, not my idea of an Italian-American either), and is pretty convincing in a fairly un-demanding role as he mostly has to be undemonstrative whether dealing with the appealing but traumatised Patricia (Aude Landry) or her drunken mother (played by Audran). There are some cosmetic changes to the book – Kling becomes ‘Klinger’ but doesn’t contribute much to the story while Carella’s wife is not portrayed as a deaf-mute and Isola (i.e. New York) is relocated to Montreal. Donald Pleasence only appears in one scene (presumably shot in a day) while David Hemming’s, as Muriel’s slightly creepy boss, has a much more substantial role and plays it very well. The film is pretty low-key though the emphasis in child predators, taken from the book, is disturbing though nothing untoward is ever actually shown. It is Lisa Langlois who really stand out from the cast though, taking over the last twenty minutes of the film in the substantial flashback that largely closes the story. The murder is fairly graphic and shown in an additional flashback which is handled with Chabrol’s customary technical expertise and closes the film in highly dramatic fashion. This is a modest, low-key film that serves the novel well though the loss of the 87th precinct atmosphere and characters is a bit of a shame.
For some great high quality stills from the film can be found by visiting the collection of producer Michael Klinger, here: http://michaelklingerpapers.uwe.ac.uk/images3.htm
DVD availability: In the UK the film was released on DVD in the early days of the format and used an old, cropped VHS master that is perfectly adequate but is occasionally scratched and washed out. In the US it was released on VHS but seems not to have made its way to disc yet. In France it is available under its French release title, Les Liens du Sang – this is said to offer better image quality and also a longer running time (about 5 minutes longer than the UK DVD) but I haven’t sen it. There is also a Spanish edition, but this also appears not to be in the original widescreen unfortunately.
Blood Relatives (1978)
Director: Claude Chabrol
Producer: Denis Héroux, Claude Lége, Michael Klinger
Screenplay: Claude Chabrol, Sydney Banks
Cinematography: Jean Rabier
Art Direction: Anne Pritchard
Music: Howard Blake (English version), Pierre Jansen (dubbed Canadian version)
Cast: Donald Sutherland (Carella), Ian Ireland (Bert Klinger), Micheline Lanctôt (Mrs Carella), Donald Pleasance, David Hemmings (Armstrong), Lisa Langlois, Aude Landry, Stéphane Audran, Laurent Malet and Micheline Lanctôt
I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘Author I’ve read before’ category: