CALYPSO (1979) by Ed McBain

McBain_Calypso_panCarella 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.”

McBain_Calypso_hbWell, 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

McBain_Calypso_gallimardIn 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”

McBain_Calypso_thomasandmercerThe 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:

05-Vintage-Silver-MacBain-Calypso

***** (2.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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36 Responses to CALYPSO (1979) by Ed McBain

  1. So…for you anyway, not one of McBain’s best, Sergio? I suppose in a better-than-50-book-long series, that would be expected. Still, for me, McBain at his weakest is better than lots at their best. Thanks as ever for an excellent review.

    • Well, McBain was develioping a different, looser style with agreater emphasis on sex and with this one the apprach tends to make the credibility gap esier to see, let’s put it thst way 🙂

      • realthog says:

        Still, for me, McBain at his weakest is better than lots at their best.

        I think Margot puts her finger on it there.

        • I will say, going through them in chronological orde like this has definite pkuses and minuses – I always always dreading re-visiting the later ones a bit … so far it’s generally going better than I remembered 🙂

          • Todd Mason says:

            Though you’re approaching my level of exasperation with Hunter here…ay this point. it’ll take an excellent story minus the small-ocean-sized wholes in the plot and motivation I keep tripping into with his work–every damned one I’ve read. Glad you’re not an uncritical fan, not that expect you to be…till De Palma films a “lost” Hunter script…it turns out to be CALYPSO, and you find yourself asking the screen, Was it necessary to have the King George character played by Sean Penn?

            I almost wrote MIA, but that probably would work to update the context (calypso in 1979? Not dead, but…)

          • Thanks for that Todd – Obviously I remain a McBain fan but moving into the second half of the 87th series was always going to bring out the critical knives i think … one day I’ll get you to see the De Palma light 🙂

  2. realthog says:

    I remember really liking this one; must try to give it a reread.

    McBain also manages somehow to bring something new to the party

    As he so often did. I have to confess that none of the 87th novels has ever disappointed me — guess I’m just a less discriminating reader than you are, Sergio!

    • I doubt that John 🙂 I like this one a lot more than the read duds in the series (I’m thinking here especially of the fairly maligned o Long As You Both Shall Live (which I reviewed here) but it’s a lesser entry. Things definitely perk up with the next one, Ghosts, which I’m reviewing in July.

  3. Colin says:

    Hmm, OK, I was toying with the idea of picking this up not so long ago but I think I’ll wait up a bit – I still have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to the 87th anyway.

  4. I’ve steadily upped my dose of McBain over the years.

  5. jhegenbe says:

    Almost anything by this guy about these guys is worth at least 4 stars, guy. At least in my book.

  6. John says:

    I’m not of those prudes, Sergio. I’ll gleefully throw four letter words all over my blog. and lately I’ve been writing about sex in books (in all its forms)more often that I ever thought I would. To hell with a G rated blog. HA!

    But CALYPSO deals with an aspect of crime fiction I find too depressing to read about. Prostitution and sexual abuse. When it’s male prostitution it tends to be worse than reading about abused women. It also hits too close to home. I knew some hustlers in my past volunteer work for a gay crisis phone line. Sad young men, some of whom we couldn’t help at all. I’ll be shying away from this one probably.

    I see that GHOSTS is next in your ongoing study of McBain. Eager to read what you think of that one. So very different for the series and this writer.

    • I liked Ghosts a lot more, John. I should add that, while I was being deliberately vague, you might actually want to read this one, if nothting else for the sake of completism, though the sex maniac here is ‘straight.’ To be more spoilery: the hooker is a happy one, albeit until she gets knocked off by a sex-crased maniac who is into threesomes and S&M and who has kidnaped a man to keep him as her sex slave on her island …

  7. Hi Sergio, I have got both this and GHOSTS in my pile of unread McBains and I’d be interested to know what you think of the latter. Carella seems to dominate the 87th Precinct series.

  8. Barry Ergang says:

    First, as Margot said, weak McBain is miles beyond what his competitors are capable of.

    Second, though it’s been decades since I read CALYPSO, I vaguely recall liking it quite a lot. I also definitely recall that it was somewhat controversial because of its extremely brutal finale, and that when called on it, McBain (Hunter) defended it by saying the NYPD saw much, much worse every day.

    • Thanks for that Barry, really interesting to know of Hunter’s comments. It’s a book full of good things but, well, let’s put it this was, after reading three dozen of them and thinking critically about them, I felt that it wasn;t as good as it might have been – in particular, the connection between the murder of the prostitute and the main case could have been finessed much more artfully – instead McBain has it rest on a coincidence so enormous that it completely destroys the plot – which is a shame because it was definitely fixable and I was really surprised he didn’t [without being too spoilery, if the killer had sought out the prostitute precisely because of her oblique connection to her se slave it would work; but she didn’t and so, in a city with hundreds of thousands of hookers, the coincidence is just too absurd).

      • Barry Ergang says:

        I recently read and reviewed McBain’s THE LAST DANCE, and one of the points made throughout the book is that cops believe in coincidence, despite its being anathema in most mystery fiction.

  9. Like Barry, I read CALYPSO decades ago. I think the best 87th Precinct novels were published in the 1980s. The later books became longer and less compelling. In a series that lasted 50 books, there are varying levels of quality.

    • Thanks George – must admit, I tend to find the books from 80s already much too long at over double the length from those in the previous decades but I’m looking forward to trying them again. First up, Ghosts next month …

      • Todd Mason says:

        But, Sergio…what did you think of GHOSTS?

        not ducking, but only because there’s a whole ocean…slightly larger than Hunter-*holes*…betwixt us. Oh, wait, there’s a suspiciously Anglo-tinted Italianate knock at the door.

        • knock, knock … *almost the title of one of Brown’s joke ‘short shorts’ as I recall 🙂 I actually liked Ghosts quite a lot, much more than Calypso, not least because it handled the supernatural elements in a way that I approve of in a thriller (which is to say, it is cheating to merely use that element to write yourself out of a corner, a good example being the movie, What Lies Beneath, which is half a decent mystery and half a piece of crap). Ghosts review gets posted in July, after I get back from visiting ‘la famiglia’ in Umbria in late June / early July.

          • Todd Mason says:

            “Knock” is actually a longish short fiction…that starts with Brown’s slightly terser retelling of Thomas Bailey Aldrich’s “A Woman Alone With Her Soul”…what’s most amusing to me, about TBA’s three-sentence musing, is that he wrote it at the turn of the 1900s, and it was more tech-heavy than Brown’s mid-century version: rather than “The last man/human on Earth sat alone in a room; there was a knock on the door,” Aldrich wrote: “A woman is sitting alone in a house. She knows she is alone in the whole world: every other living thing is dead. The doorbell rings.”

          • Thanks Todd, I managed to mid-remember that. Harlan Ellison did a nice spoof as I recall …

  10. As with another of your recent reviews, you made it sound good in the first few paras, then entertainingly put me off! I have read odd ones in this series, and quite liked them, but they don’t pull me on to read more.

    • Thanks Moira – I’m so far into the series that I really do want to start seeing the light at the end fo the tunnel, but they are very professionally put together and highly entertaining – this one is not a favourite however.

  11. Hank says:

    Wow…I just discovered this blog, and I need to go back and read the reviews of the first couple of decades of 87th Precinct novels.

    It’s been a long time since I’ve read “Calypso”, but I do recall it as being somewhat tone-deaf. McBain was always a fearless writer, and while his attempts to incorporate calypso music and culture into the novel are noteworthy, his creation of hybrid calypso lyrics in an attempt to transform this music to prose just didn’t work well enough for me.

    However, had he done this today, McBain would likely be attacked by by critics as racist for portraying another culture through the lens of his white cultural bias, and I’m not sure that I would buy that argument either.

    Also–in a series littered with over-the-top crimes, “Calypso” still ranks as as one of McBain’s darkest novels. So while I would point to this novel as an great example of McBain’s willingness–for better or for worse–to stretch creatively as a writer, I wouldn’t describe it as McBain for beginnners.

    I’ll stay on the lookout for the review of “Ghosts”. One aspect of the book that I found noteworthy is that the novel was dedicated to literary agent Ed Victor–and the novel went on to include a literary agent character portrayed as gay, violent, and perhaps alcoholic. Knowing McBain, nothing–no matter how subtle–ever shows up in any of his novels by accident, and if Victor ever represented McBain, it was in the pre-“Ghosts”: era.

    • Thanks very much for the kind words Hank – I agree that the book wouldn’t really be written this way and, despite its deficiencies, McBain did an honourable job on the whole – and yes, it really does get dark and Gothic by the end! Good point about the in-joke relating Victor, who was Hunter’s British agent (the company is still active in fact – http://www.edvictor.com/). I’m posting the review of Ghosts on Friday – hope you like it!

  12. Pingback: MISCHIEF (1993) by Ed McBain | Tipping My Fedora

  13. Pingback: NOCTURNE (1997) by Ed McBain | Tipping My Fedora

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