Well, it really has been a while – over a year to be precise! After the disappointment of So Long As You Both Shall Live (which I reviewed here), I decided to bench the 87th Precinct books for a while. But today we are back with the next volume in Ed McBain’s infinitely varied saga, titled appropriately enough, Long Time No See. And I’m glad to say that this proves to be a much more substantial effort. We begin with a double murder – first a Vietnam vet, blinded in the conflict, has his throat cut in the street. Then the next day his wife, who is also blind, is murdered at home in the same way.
I submit this review for Bev’s Vintage Mystery Challenge.
Long Time No See (87th Precinct series #32)
First Published: 1977
Leading players: Steve Carella, Meyer Meyer, Monoghan & Monroe, Cotton Hawes, Teddy Carella, Sam Grossman, Dick Genero
“He was blind but he knew his city”
Carella and Mayer soon discover that the seemingly innocent husband and wife had secrets – she was having an affair, and he was hoping to reverse his financial fortunes with some illegal activity. But then another blind person is murdered and another attacked, which suggests that in fact there is a maniac at large. It turns out that McBain is ever so slightly recycling one of his oldest plots here, something he acknowledges in humorous fashion by having his detectives poo poo the scenario as being too far-fetched (and then McBain goes right ahead and does it anyway). But if some of the story feels a bit familiar, the approach has definitely changed with the time.
“The tempo of the city was changing” – chapter four
The first thing you notice picking this one up is that is feels much heavier than the previous entry – with reason, as it’s double the length! On the back of my copy, the 1979 pan edition pictured at the top of this review, it quotes a Sunday Times review, “The best 87th Precinct, as well as the longest, for several years” and it seems clear that the increased length was a new selling point for the series. The paperback revolution of the 50s and 60s had quietened down and the cover prices had gone up – now it was the era of the Arthur Hailey / Harold Robbins blockbuster and readers demanded more for their money. So McBain added more sex and started to focus more or salacious content, though thankfully with his wit intact. Take this long aside into lavatorial humour:
“In all of America, a toilet was something other than what it was supposed to be. It was a bathroom or a powder room or a rest room, but it was never a toilet. Americans did not like the word toilet. It denoted waste product. Americans, the most wasteful humans on the face of the earth, did not like to discuss waste products of bodily functions”
When the series started, back in the mid 1950s, there would be three 87th Precinct novels a year, all about 150 pages long and could cost as little as 25 cents. My UK paperback copy was originally priced at £2.50, which is pretty much what I might pay for it online today (with postage). It is over 250 pages long, and to reach this length McBain definitely relaxed his style. Though this never feels like padding – his prose was always first-rate – it does take much longer now for the author to cut to the chase. For instance, we get a very long section set in a ‘massage parlour’ that is, in and of itself, very well done and typical of the increased depiction of sex in the books, but is none the less little more than a massive narrative blind alley (or shall we say, a great, big ole red herring). Other recent books in the series, such as Bread (which I reviewed here), had already started to feet more substantial not just because of increased length but also because there was more plot and there were more characters, In this case though what we have is certainly the longest 87th precinct mystery by far (and it would hold the record for quite a while too) but this is achieved by extending all the scenes with more detailed character building, extended red herrings and lengthier character ruminations. There is even – I think a first for the series – an extended flashback, leading to a pretty explicit sex scene.
“One of the cops was Italian, but he didn’t wear a dirty raincoat, and he didn’t fumble for words, and he didn’t pretend he was dumb.”
When the 87th precinct series started, McBain frequently references jack Webb’s radio and TV sensation Dragnet – not this has changed to Columbo (which is ironic as two of the books would eventually be adapted for the show when revived int he late 80s – I reviewed these two before: Jigsaw and So Long As You Both Shall Live. In many ways Long Time No See represents a shifting of gears or anyway a course correction for the series, with McBain amending his approach to better adapt itself to changing market conditions. There would now be references to computers and the language would be much coarser and the content sometimes very bloody indeed (the finale to his next book, Calypso , for instance, is truly nasty). Beyond these cosmetic changes though it has to be said that the way that McBain connects the killing of three blind people with an incident going back a decade to the Vietnam War is certainly surprising, if not especially convincing. None the less, this is a book which proves that, even after thirty volumes, the series could still go to new places in an exciting fashion.
I am making my way chronologically though the entire 87th Precinct series – to see my previous reviews, click here.
This review was submitted as part of Bev’s 2015 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in ‘pseudonym’ the category: