A heavy emphasis on the supernatural takes the 87th Precinct series into uncharted waters with this volume. It may be Christmas but Carella and Hawes are investigating the fatal stabbing of two residents of a new and highly secure apartment block, one outside and one inside. The one outside was killed in the getaway but the only person who visited the original victim at the time of the murder can prove he was not there at the time – could he be in two places at once? Then the victim’s psychic girlfriend gets involved …
I submit this review for Bev’s Vintage Mystery Challenge; and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme, hosted today by Evan Lewis at Davy Crockett’s Almanack.
Ghosts (87th Precinct series #34)
First Published: 1980
Leading players: Steve Carella, Cotton Hawes, Meyer Meyer, Monoghan & Monroe, Dick Genero, Bob O’Brien, Teddy Carella, Peter Byrnes, Tack Fujiwara
“… we’re not in the whodunit business here. There are no mysteries in police work. There are only crimes and the person or persons who committed those crimes.”
Following on from the template McBain re-established for the series with the previous two entries, Long Time No See and then Calypso, this is another case featuring a quartet murders (used to be that one killing was enough but inflation finally caught up with McBain) with a decidedly unlikely motive, its roots eventually buried in a crime committed several years before. And once again the sexual element is prominent (women are constantly throwing themselves at Carella), as are the entertaining if ultimately inconclusive red herrings that are perhaps just a tad too extended. And the language is now much saltier (and realistic) too (but I’ll keep censoring though as this, after all, is a family blog):
“F***k the new regs,” Monoghan said. “We’re standin here freezin our asses off, and you’re worried about the new regs.”
The victim found inside the apartment block and stabbed many, many times, was Gregory Craig, author of a bestselling book claiming to recount true experiences of the paranormal (imagine something like the sensation that surrounded the then recent publication of Jay Anson’s allegedly fact-based The Amityville Horror). The murderer apparently tied up the author, searched the apartment and then stabbed the man nearly twenty times before fleeing the scene and stabbing another resident as they exited the building. The initial suspect is the author’s agent Daniel Corbett, who apparently arrived shortly before. Trouble is, at that time he was at a party making out with an intern, who backs up the alibi. Then Corbett is stabbed to death.
“They’re here,” she whispered.
And then there is Craig’s kookie and very young girlfriend, Hilary, who is the spitting image of Teddy Carella, which really disturbs her husband Steve, not least because the woman claims to be psychic. He then meets her identical twin sister, who decided the detective is really hot stuff. Carella manages to repel her advances, but Teddy realises something is up none the less. It seems there is a bond between these three women who look so alike. Then the sister is attacked on the subway and barely gets away with her life and Meyer gets shot twice and barely survives. All this while ghostly auras tell Hilary that she and Steve must revisit the house where Gregory wrote his bestseller – are the ghosts still there? And just what crime are they in fact pointing to?
“… why the hell was he risking a hassle with a cop? You dope, I’m a cop! Fujiwara thought, and stepped aside in reflex to dodge the knife”
Once again, one has to admire McBain’s ability to make the most of his material and also ring the changes. Yes, the plot is maybe stretched out just a smidgen with too many murders, but there is plenty of incident here, not least a wonderful section devoted to crimes committed over the Christmas period that includes the theft of an entire cobbled street. And then there are the ghosts. A decade earlier McBain had also included spectral apparitions in an 87th Precinct story, though in that case the manifestations all turned out to be a fake (in Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here). Here though they are played straight and provide some beneficial frissons without intruding on the detective element (that is to say, Carella doesn’t solve the crime through otherworldly intervention), which is at it should be in a police procedural like this one. In a very nice touch, incidentally, and one that feeds back to the Amityville example, the title proves to have a sly double meaning linking directly to the plot and which only becomes apparent right at the end. Other innovations include the introduction Takashi ‘Tack’ Fujiwara, the squad’s only Japanese detective, who here gets himself promoted to the squad thanks to some quick thinking on his part. Another really solid entry in the series (though Carella’s ghostly sex dream may be a bit much and once again Haws is under-used), one that benefits from a solid structure (and by being one of the shorter of the later books) and some genuine innovations.
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 ‘spooky’ the category: