Carella and Meyer of the 87th get involved in the music world in this, the 33rd entry in this amazingly long-lived series of police procedurals. “King George’ was a Trinidadian singer-songwriter of calypso songs dealing with hot topic issues, from graft in the mayor’s office to the exploitation of black women. On his way home from a concert, he and his manager are shot. His manager barely got away with his life when the killer’s gun ran out of bullets, but the King was not so lucky.
I submit this review for Bev’s Vintage Mystery Challenge; and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog.
Calypso (87th Precinct series #33)
First Published: 1979
Leading players: Steve Carella, , Meyer Meyer, Monoghan & Monroe, Bert Kling, Cotton Hawes, Fat Ollie Weeks, Teddy Carella, Sam Grossman, Dick Genero
“There is nothing cops like better than continuity, even it takes a couple of corpses to provide it”
Summer is ending (it is September) and as always, there is death and chicanery all over the city. Carella and Meyer discover that the King was not such a great guy, his marriage was in trouble, he was involved with a recording scam; and he was obsessed by the disappearance of his young brother. Then the killer tries to kill the agent again and this time succeeds. Then a prostitute (Clara Jean Hawkins, known as ‘CJ’) is killed with the same gun. How are the two crimes connected? Is the discovery of unusual sand a clue? And will Carella be able to withstand the uncouth love of Fat Ollie Weeks of the 83rd Precinct?
“‘I’ll bust the door down, you fan out behind me.”
“Ollie,” Carella said, “we haven’t got a warrant. I think …”
“F***k the warrant,” Ollie said, “this is Diamondback.”
Well, I have to say, after the comparative success of Long Time No See, this subsequent volume does feel like after taking two steps forward, we have now taken one step back. Much of the structure and approach is a bit too reminiscent of the previous book in fact – again, we have a long series of murders with the solution to be found in a crime in the past; Carella and Meyer are the main protagonists; an extended subplot involving the sex trade; Carella once again has a woman literally throwing herself at him; there is also lots of bad language (I censored the above quote – not because I’m a prude, but because I don’t know who might be reading, which I suppose means I think you might be – sorry about that); and again there is a prominent role for a dog – but darn if there aren’t also far too many links back to that recent nadir of the series, So Long As You Both Shall Live (which I reviewed here). Not only do we get Fat Ollie referring to the case wistfully (he’s an awful bigot but loves the guys of the 87th and is, in fairness, a very able cop) but we get the repeat plot of a character being kidnapped and held prisoner by an insane person. And there is the plausibility factor …
“Carella hated mysteries. In mysteries, there were never funerals or wakes … in real life the murder victim was a person“
In this case the kidnapping subplot is taken to frankly ludicrous extremes with the victim held for over seven years on a deserted island. It’s not that this might not work (after all, it’s been the stuff of scary headlines of late) but in this case the emphasis is on the fact that a young man has been taken and used as a sex slave – which may be a neat reversal of what is usually depicted, but none the less also feels exploitative (McBain really did keep amping up the sex element at this point in the series). And McBain just isn’t able to convince us that such a scenario could have gone on for so long without being detected, especially when a prostitute is brought in for special occasions. This also leads to a truly colossal coincidence – that the very same prostitute that the murderer has picked to spice up the sex life with their prisoner on the island is the same who wants to cut a record with the King (who has a connection to the prisoner on the island). McBain could have connected the two much more easily if he had tried (if, say, the killer had targeted the woman precisely because the King was interested in that particular sex worker as a source of material), but he doesn’t and I’m really not sure why since it is otherwise incredibly unlikely. Yes it’s a surprise, but in a nanosecond we really that it is just too improbable to withstand any kind of scrutiny – which is the sort of thing that a police procedural, compared with a Golden Age mystery, need to be able to withstand, especially as McBain makes the comparison between the two types of stories explicit in this book.
“He had not yet seen the horror on the bed”
The finale has more than a touch of Grand Guignol to it and is particularly grisly. It makes for a surprisingly dispiriting ending, in which the boys of the 87th seem to accomplish very little, always arriving just a little bit too late, unable to stop several murders. The book does have several positive points of interest though as it is here that we learn that forensic expert Sam Grossman has been promoted to captain. This is also the book that initiated the use of one-word titles which, with one major exception, Eight Black Horses (1985), McBain would stick to for the next 20 years. It also has a fascinating innovation in chapter 4 in which we are given the lyrics of one of the King’s calypso songs, the sing-song rhythm then matched by the prose for the remainder of the chapter. McBain also manages somehow to bring something new to the party – and that’s why we keep coming back to the 87th. I am currently 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 ‘entertainment world’ the category: