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 the result is a rather peculiar movie 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 Hemmings, 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 on child predators, taken from the book, is disturbing though nothing untoward is ever actually shown. It is Lisa Langlois who really stands 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:
Sergio – Let’s face it: when Hunter/McBain is good, he is very, very good. And even when he’s not, he’s still pretty darn good. This is just an example (in my opinion) of a novel where he shows his skill both at dialogue and at character interactions. I wish the film (which I confess I’ve not seen) had captured that.
Thanks Margot – the movie had a very belated and limited release in the US and is more of a curio perhaps though Chabrol is always worth a look in my view.
Sounds very interesting and yet (especially the film) vaguely disturbing too.
Thanks chum – I actually have a spare copy of the DVD if you’d like it – I can add it to the ones I;m sending you anyway?
Well, seeing as you’re offering… 🙂
I seem to have been watching an awful lot of French crime movies lately, and that’s partly down to some of the stuff we’ve been discussing here.
Plenty more where these came from chum 🙂 In fact I have at least two more Chabrol reviews coming up very shortly – but then he was really, really prolific!
That’s great. I’m always happy to have my viewing/reading horizons expanded, and some of the stuff you’ve been pumping out lately has certainly been doing that.
Oh, we aim to please, broaden and expand, while strangely looking backwards at the same time … 🙂
The ideal combination.
Although I really, really am trying to make an effort to get to grips with more contemporary books (and movies frnkly). Bit too easy to get disconnected I find …
I’ve reached a point in life where I don’t beat myself up too much on that score; if something grabs me then OK, if it doesn’t then that’s OK too.
Sounds a lot healthier than what I do …
McBain weaves a mean plot, doesn’t he? He never seemed to run out of story ideas for his 87th Precinct mysteries. How many did he write in all? I counted somewhere between 55 and 60. Claude Chabrol and his screen adaptations of crime novels was a revelation. Thanks for another fine review, Sergio. A McBain or two is long overdue.
Sergio, I forgot to mention. Three McBain treats in a row—great stuff!
Thanks chum – well, given Patti’s celebration I had to put in a bit of extra effort, didn’t I?!
Thanks Prashant – well, by my reckoning it’s a total of 55 books, which I have listed here. This includes a book made up of three novellas (The Empty Hours, definitely not a Sherlock Holmes pastiche despite the title) and a cross-over with McBain’s Matthew Hope series (The Last Best Hope)
I credit Sergio and this website for turning me on to McBain in the first place. I’ve read about 14 87th Precint novels so far, none of which have disappointed (Blood Relatives is particularly good) and it’s awesome knowing there are still over 30 left to read.
I’ve also discovered McBain’s alter ego, Evan Hunter, and he’s an excellent novelist. I don’t know if you’ve heard of his novel Streets of Gold published in 1974. I think it’s a masterpiece of the Italian-American immigrant experience before WWII. My mother’s family comes from the same region of Italy as Hunter’s grandfather.
The only thing that disappoints me about Hunter is he changed his name from Salvatore! I understand why he changed his name, but it’s interesting that in some of his interviews it almost seemed like he shunned his Italian heritage.
Grazie Salvatore! I haven’t read Streets of Gold but I really will now – thanks again chum.
He did. I also wasn’t kidding when I wrote on Patti Abbott’s blog that “Hunter” was an angry, angry man, who wasn’t always so discriminating in his prey. (And while I don’t dislike him as a person nearly as much as I do Miles Davis, Sergio, he’s not the nicest guy in the history of crime fiction, either…)
Oh sure, Mike Ripley has regaled me with utterly unprintable anecdotes about McBain so I’m not going to dispute any of this. I wonder what he was so frustrated about? In theory he had an amazing career (bestselling serious novelist, well, certainly between Blackboard and Last Summer anyway), popular and prolific author of crime novels and did fairly well as a screenwriter. Despite all the marriages it sounds like he was well-off financially … Me, I just enjoy the books 🙂
BLOOD RELATIVES is an excellent McBain choice! Todd is right about McBain/Hunter being a driven man. Lawrence Block had several enlightening Evan Hunter stories in his column in MYSTERY SCENE magazine last year. But much of his work is top-notch.
hanks very much for that George - I'll have to see if I can find those pieces by Block, sounds fascinating - thanks, as always.
Blood Relatives was great, great fun. Reading the diary entries was wonderfully entertaining, because I just KNEW that there was going to be a surprise twist, and the fun was in seeing how McBain was going to spring it. I suppose I might have worked it out if I sat down and thought about it, but these shorter novels are so much fun that I just hang on and let McBain entertain the heck out of me.
The next title is “So Long As You Both Shall Live,” and it appears to be the last of the short-form novels. I’m two-thirds through it, and although I don’t wholeheartedly endorse it as great, I will say that the opening chapter is as good as anything McBain wrote in his entire career. I note that the followup title, “Long Time No See,” is a full 67% longer than SLAYBSL. Apres ca, le deluge, I guess.
Speaking of “Ed McBain” and his writing voice, I happened to pick up a Matthew Hope novel at a friends-of-the-library book sale (“There Was A Little Girl”). Although I don’t think I’ll return to that series (don’t need to read another book about a murder-solving attorney), I did note with pleasure that the “Ed McBain” voice was very much in attendance. Curiously, I didn’t feel the same way about the “Ed McBain” half of “Candyland.”
Keep up the fine work, chum!
Thanks very much Jack, really grateful for the great feedback. I just finished So Long As You Both Shall Live and found it to be mostly disappointing because once you got past the premise, well, that was pretty much it, which was a real shame – it would have been much better as a novella in my view. However, Fat Ollie Weeks makes a surprisingly welcome return – indeed I would venture he’s the best thing about it! And yes, then that is sort of it, all the books after it are at least 200 pages or more and Long Time No See that immediately follows is, in my pan edition, well over 100 pages longer!
Yes, without getting too far into it, I agree with you on “So Long As You Both Shall Live.” And yes, Fat Ollie is an absolutely winning and original character.
Holding the hefty tome that is “Long Time No See” in my hand right now. Can you believe, I actually paused to consider whether I wanted to continue with the series into the longer lengths! But then I came to my senses–after all, I’m on vacation, and what else was I going to read, that history of the Battle of Antietam? Finally, reading the dust jacket convinced me. Interestingly, they actually are tauting the longer page count (“Ed McBain’s longest, most intricate 87th Precinct book”). I also liked this description: “here is the authentic sweat and grime of police work. One of the cops is Italian, but he doesn’t wear a dirty raincoat or pretend he’s dumb; the other is bald, but he doesn’t suck lollipops or dress like a mayor.”
Sheesh – what edition is that, Jack? That is really bizarre and yet very telling because that was where the pressure to make them seem longer and ‘bigger’ was clearly coming from. As for letting the series go, jut keep telling yourself that McBain is good for you even in larger doses and you’ll be fine – take three and call me in the morning 🙂
I got this edition out of the library. It’s a 1977 Random House hardcover, and it I read the copyright page properly, it might be a first edition.
Thanks sounds about right in that case, Jack – mind bending!
Three Mcbain reviews in a week! I have been spoiled. Blood Relatives sounds like one of the best of the whole series. There are quite a few gaps in my 1970’s 87th precinct novels which i need to fill. Great reviews as always.
Thanks Steve – very kind of you!
I had no idea that there was another McBain book adapted as a movie. Actually, to tell the truth, I did not know there were any until I read your posts about them. I would watch just about anything with Donald Sutherland in it, so maybe someday it will be available here. I would not want to watch it before I read the book, and at my present rate, that will be years. Something to look forward to.
Glad you enjoyed the post TracyK – The main adaptations in the US were in the late 50s, early 60 and then a trio of TV-movies from 30 years later that probably were meant to launch a series but never did – you might not get to those ones for even longer!
Thanks for another well written and informative review, Sergio. One of these days I will simply have to begin reading Ed McBain – what with everyone being so in love with this author’s books and all. I guess I’ve always been too busy reading something else. Still, as usual, I enjoyed your take on things. 🙂
Thanks very much Yvette – mind you, Todd hates his stuff, and he’s a man of taste, so could just be a ginormous blind spot of mine… 🙂
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I read “Blood Relatives” today. For some reason, the essential plot of the novel had faded from memory, so it was sort of like “reading it again for the first time”. After reading the above, however, I have a slew of thoughts…let me see:
1. I’m kind of surprised at the complaints about how the 87th Precinct novels got longer in the mid-1970’s–it’s not like McBain started cranking out Steven King-sized thousand-pagers or anything. If anything, prior to “Long Time No See”, McBain had been writing very short novels, and I know that when I started getting into these books, I would have at least hesitated at the prospect of spending $15-20 on a hardcover novel that would only take me a couple of hours to read. And whether or not the post “LTNS” novels were padded to meet an extended word count kind of seems like quibbling given the extent to which some of the earlier, shorter novels were also often padded with subplots and red herrings. But again–if the length of the latter 87th Precinct novels don’t bother me, first and foremost it’s because they are not that long.
That said–“Blood Relatives” is about as lean as anything McBain ever wrote, without any significant subplots or B-stories outside of occasional interludes discussing Bert and Augusta’s upcoming wedding, a day in the life of Isola sanitation workers, and the rubber stamp memo–classic McBain.
2. I don’t remember where or how I came to buy this used paperback copy of “Blood Relatives” (for a dollar, according to the writing on the inside front cover) but the giant blurb the people at Bantam slapped on the back cover is sort of ridiculous: “THE MEANEST SEX CRIME ON THE STREET”. Huh? In fact, by McBain standards, the crime being investigated in “Blood Relatives” strikes me as possibly one of the more pedestrian incidents at the heart of an 87th Precinct novel–the core of the story is the police investigation.Was Bantam worried that the novel might disappoint readers seeking a sexier, more violent and suspenseful book?
3. I’ll be honest–I’ve never seen any of the various 87th Precinct TV or movie adaptations; in fact, for many years (prior to the internet), I had no idea any of them existed. However, I can’t say that I’m particularly curious to watch any of them. The best thing that each and every one of these novels has going for it is McBain’s narrative voice. Why get rid of it?
Anyway, my only quibble with “Blood Relatives” center around how the big reveal at the end was portrayed, which I won’t spoil. Suffice to say that the character at the center of the reveal wound up coming off as underdeveloped–which probably doesn’t make much sense, except that the character could have made more sense but didn’t, almost as though McBain was atypically in a rush to tie off all loose ends.
Oh–and before I forget: Walt Lefferts! While I don’t know if there has ever been a hard and fast number of detective assigned to the 87th Precinct at any given time, every now and again a 87th detective is named who has never been mentioned before, and is never mentioned again. In this case, it is 17-year veteran Walt Lefferts, “who’d been transferred to the 87th Squad only the month before.” What happened to Detective Lefferts? I need to dig out “So Long As You Both Shall Live” to see if he at least managed to swing an invite to Bert and Augusta’s wedding…
Thanks for all the great comemnts Hank. Well, when it comes to the debate about the merits or demerits of the increased length (and I’m one of those making the point in a negative way, I realise), I think it is a criticism that one could also level at Simenon or the ‘Richard Stark’ books of there era. I think they tend to work best as short books, ones aimed primarily at paperback rather than hardback sales, because only so much time is going to be devoted to character development and you can only stretch a plot so far. But the later Stark books also started getting longer and sensibly the series ended when this started to become hard to handle (well, before picking up again two decades later) and I suspect with good reason because they are harder to sustain. The McBain books added more suplots, which is sensible and not a problem per se, but it can make it tougher to retain thematic unity (Lightning is a good example of of how this can be a problem to my mind). By the time you get to Vespers circa 1990, these books are 350 pages long, more than twice the length of Blood Relatives and not twice a good, not by a long shot.
With regard to the latter, do you think the problem is that having made the crucial character delibrately opaque than then credibility becoems a problem in terms of motivation? it is a limitation of hte approach after all if you are trying to surprise your reader. Can;t remember any other references to poor Walt either 🙂
Boy…again it’s hard to dissect this stuff without spoiling things…let me issue a SPOILER ALERT
In a sloppier novel, the trope in which a completely insane character manages to conceal that insanity from the entire world might be easier to accept. The killer in “Blood Relatives”, however, is literally led away in a straightjacket, despite having successfully concealed from the rest of the world (as well as the reader) whatever undiagnosed mental/emotional imbalance/disorder that led to their homicidal insanity. That this killer is AGAIN, SPOILER ALERT a fifteen year old girl only makes the ending seem not so much convenient as sloppy.
On the other hand, as you mentioned, if McBain had provided too much background/depth about his killer to the reader, prior to the reveal, then yes, it might have tipped off the solution, something else I’ve been known to complain about. It’s a tough call.
Mostly, however, I think my dissatisfaction stems from the brilliance of McBain’s otherwise lean and efficient storytelling–I’m certainly holding him to a higher expectation than I would another writer. Everything that happens in the first 75% of the novel is pure police procedural; McBain takes us into Carella’s mind, both explaining Carella’s reasoning as the case progresses, and also crafting a narrative in which just about everything that happens following the initial murder is generated solely by Carella’s pursuit of evidence. That Carella, as with every other character in the novel, ostensibly fails to ever even consider suspecting the actual killer due to her apparent ability to conceal her homicidal tendencies is something that I’m confident McBain could have handled better. But again–yes, my expectations are probably heightened.
END SPOILER ALERT
Must admit Hank, I though it all fell well within the conventions of the genre, with McBain working hard to provide a neat reversal with a very constrained framework. I’m not necessarily disagreeing with you but perhaps my expectations were different. I thought the story was good and the characters plausible, even the killer fo rth emost part (with a proviso – motivation is often a bit of a problem with insane killers, is it not, and it is true a bit here too). I still think it’s the last of the really good McBain bookss in the original style before expansionist tendencies took over 🙂
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