GHOSTS (1980) by Ed McBain

McBain_Ghosts_panA 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.”

McBain_Ghosts_hbThe 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”

McBain_Ghosts_thomasandmercerOnce 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:



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

This entry was posted in 2015 Vintage Mystery Challenge, 87th Precinct, Ed McBain, Friday's Forgotten Book, New York, Police procedural. Bookmark the permalink.

40 Responses to GHOSTS (1980) by Ed McBain

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    I really do love the interactions of the characters in this series, Sergio. And although I’m not one for the psychic element, I also believe that McBain at his weakest was better than heaps of people at their best. Very glad you enjoyed this one.

  2. realthog says:

    I remember enjoying this quite a lot despite being initially offput by the supernatural element. I’m happy enough with the supernatural in fantasy, but most of the crime/supernatural crossovers I’ve read have been crapola. Trust McBain to be one of the few authors to achieve just such a crossover that I found perfectly satisfying.

    this is another case featuring a quartet murders (used to be that one killing was enough but inflation finally caught up with McBain

    The first 87th-Precincter, Cop Hater has at least three . . .

    • True enough about Cop Hater John, though in fairness (to me), without giving too much away, I would argue that in this case that was merely part of the killer’s method and thus unusual …

      • Santosh Iyer says:

        There is a spoiler regarding Cop Hater in this book (chapter 5)

        • Well, it has to be said, McBain does do that every now and then as part of bringing readers up to speed – you’ve got to admit, being able to do that 30 years later with a series that is still going strong is quite a fun thing to put on your CV 🙂

  3. realthog says:

    Oops. Family blog. I meant “cr*p*l*”.

  4. Colin says:

    Sounds good. I’ve just recently finished of The Mugger and enjoyed it immensely so I’m taking a few more steps into 87th Precinct territory. And, I have to admit it was your enthusiasm for the writer and the series that made my mind up to dig in.

    • Thanks Colin – that is the ultimate compliment as far as I am concerned. The 25 years that separate thee two novels is certainly evident but in my view at least, what was good about the series in the 50s was still what was best about the series 30 years later 🙂

      • Colin says:

        Well I have read one of the later book – the next one you’ll feature or thereabouts I think, and while I did detect differences there are, as you say, as many good things carried over as lost.
        I really enjoy the fluidity of McBain’s writing in what I’ve read so far and I’m busy picking up volumes at regular intervals. So yes, your recommendations have been wholly successful so far.

        • It really is a remarkably varied series, no question there. The next one I’m reviewing is Heat (runnign that in mid September – yes, I’m that organised …), which I had mized feeling about frankly

          • Colin says:

            Ah, haven’t read that – it was Ice, so soonish I guess.

          • I actually have that scheduled for the following week as I will also be reviewing the TV Movie version (which is by far the most entertaining of the three made in the mid 90s but which failed to progress as a series).

          • Colin says:

            I look forward to that – I haven’t seen it myself.

          • Good looking little film actually – both directed and photographed by Bradford May, who has been a very busy guy in episodic TV and small-screen movies for decasdes. The casting is OK, not great …

  5. Ed says:

    I have not read this one. From your plot summary it sounds like it should not work, but with McBain I am willing to give it a go. I am old enough to remember all the hype about Amityville, so I guess this book was topical at the time.

  6. Santosh Iyer says:

    I have read the book.
    I found it interesting and entertaining, full of humour. I enjoyed reading it. Of course, Ed Mcbain breaks the rules by introducing supernaturalism, but it is all in good fun.
    However, there is a lot of padding. For example, the chapter 6 could have been omitted completely.
    The psychic mentions that Gregory Craig was murdered by a ghost and in a sense she is
    correct !

    • I do like how the whole ghost thing works itself out in fact – and no getting away from it, these later books do tend to have a lot of padding – one I’ve just finished has about 10 pages or more just filled with circled dates from a calendar, the details of which he just repeats in the prose anyway! But I’m nit really begrudging him that – it wasn’t that the books needed to be longer, just that the marketplace demanded it.

  7. John says:

    I was truly surprised by the genuine supernatural content in this book given that it’s part of a police procedural series. I expected the title to be metaphorical. Read it a long time ago and barely recall anything other than two scenes, but I do remember that it impressed me and I enjoyed it. Didn’t even remember that it was set at Christmas time. Utter coincidence: my FFB post today is about a book about a murderous ghost!

    • Thanks for that John. Well, while steering away from spoilers, the title is also metaphorical in fact, though as Santosh rightly points out, the ghost is the murderer … And fascinated to read you review of the Clare Curzon, seen the Hamlyn edition plenty of times way back when but never read it.

  8. Yvette says:

    Not for me, Sergio. But as usual I enjoyed the review. I’m not keen on salty language unless there’s no other way to express an emotion. Don’t like it in everyday conversation over trivialities or even over ‘eureka’ moments. Know what I mean? I’m too delicate. Ha! I’ve tried over the years to get into a McBain book here and there and always failed in the attempt. Then I thought: why push yourself to read something that was obviously not written for you? Life’s too short.

    • Fair enough Yvette 🙂 Certainly ,if the titles from the 50s don’t do it for you, stay away, the language just gets riper and riper there after. I don’t mind it necessarily, but must admit, it’s not exactly something I look forward to (with a different author, like Ellroy, it wouldn’t be a problem – just a question of context I guess).

  9. I read GHOSTS back in 1980. McBain was publishing a couple 87th Precinct books a year back then. Occasionally, I found the books to be formulaic. But, they were head-and-shoulders over most mystery series of the time.

  10. Hank says:

    I don’t have much to add–the “supernatural element” everybody is referring to certainly made this an outlier within the series, and while I’m also not much of a fan of that genre, it works to the extent that (a) McBain commits to what he writes, and (b) the encounter is seen through the eyes of Carella, and his reaction to the encounter is one of those moments, one of those little McBain brushstrokes, that adds yet another small but vital bit of shading to the portrait of Carella gradually being painted over the course of fifty years of writing.

    But, and has also been noted, both “Calypso” and “Ghosts” could serve as indication of McBain going to extremes for new ideas. Either way, I do think it works here.

    I did like the pairing of Meyer and O’Brien and the inevitable result. Interestingly, McBain seemed to choose to almost downplay the potential shock of the encounter they have, portraying it instead as almost predictable–O’Brien’s reputation as a hard-luck cop stays intact, while Meyer’s infinite patience is tested yet again.

    Mostly I just wonder what Ed Victor did to piss off McBain.

    • Thanks Hank. Let’s hope McBaina and Victor stayed on good terms! I think you put it very well there about extremes – one senses that from this period on this will tend to be part of the whole ‘inflationary’ approach to the books

  11. tracybham says:

    Sounds like it will be interesting, should I get that far in the series. I am still back at the beginning, having only read three books so far.

    • Now come on Tracy, you know you want to read more than that 🙂 I am really enjoying the great variety of the series, but I think I do, on the whole prefer the shorter earlier ones … which is pretty impressive as we’re talking about 30 books or so!

  12. Sergio, I wouldn’t have associated McBain with supernatural elements in his cracking novels and though I have a fine hardback edition of this book, I have not read it yet. Frankly, I’m not sure when I might be reading it.

    • Thanks Prashant. I liked this one as I think it ‘plays fair’ by keeping the detection and supernatural elements largely separate so it is more about perception than anything else

  13. Bev Hankins says:

    I keep telling myself that I’m going to read a McBain (primarily because you keep tossing them out here for me to look at 😉 )…I’ve got a few on the shelf and will actually be grabbing one up in October.

  14. I’m like Bev. Every time you cover one I say ‘will get to one of these soon’. Maybe I should just give up, read your reviews, and convince myself that I have read more than the two or thee that have crossed my path. I do always enjoy your reviews – and like everyone else would say ‘welcome back.’

    • Well thanks for that Moira, on both counts 🙂 Well, I always think the series is varied enough to cater to most tastes, but it really does depend which one you pick! Eventually I wshall have to provide a prore rationalised guide to the reviews, but in the meantime I’ve got another 19 books to go in the series!

  15. Colin says:

    It just happens that I was browsing a used book store today (yes, there are still some around!) and I scored a copy of this book for 50p! Very happy.

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