It’s summer in the city and we get a quartet of plotlines for the thirty-fifth volume in the 87th Precinct series (I am in the process of reading / re-reading them all in chronological order; to see my previous 34 reviews, click here). In the first, Steve Carella is investigating a suicide that is not what it seems; the second is a tale of domestic jealousy involving Bert Kling and his wife Augusta; then there is a drugs bust in which everything goes wrong; and finally the nasty tale of a jail-bird who sets out to kill the cop who arrested him.
I submit this review for Bev’s Vintage Mystery Challenge; and Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott at her fab Pattinase blog.
Heat (87th Precinct series #35)
First Published: 1981
Leading players: Steve Carella, Bert Kling, Richard Genero, Meyer Meyer, Augusta Blair, Peter Byrnes
“Steve, I think my wife is playing around with somebody.”
As noted previously, the entries in the 87 Precinct series had started to noticeably balloon in length from Long Time No See in 1977. However, although this is one of the shorter titles from the period (my Pan edition, pictured above, runs to 200 pages, which may make it in fact the shortest the series would now ever get), it probably should still have lost its two minor subplots and brought the page-count down by about a quarter if truth be told. Long sections of dialogue definitely constitute padding (such as Carella’s extended running battles over delays with the ME and the telephone company) and the failed drugs bust episode in particular adds very little. On the other hand, the section devoted to the increasing amount of graffiti in the city makes for some fascinating social observation. Either way, the book is a bit overlong, though that is as nothing compared with the next in the series, Ice (1983), which comes in at some 300 pages! But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves …
“Kling should have realised his marriage was doomed the minute he started tailing his wife.”
The main story – a troubled commercial artist who, stricken by alcoholism and obsessed by his father’s recent suicide, apparently downs a whole bottle of Seconal – makes for a pretty good mystery as Carella doggedly turns up unexpected motives and physical evidence that go against what superficially seems an open and shut suicide case. But he keeps asking himself: why did the man turn off the air conditioning in the blistering August heat? Why were there no fingerprints on the pill bottle? Why did his ex-wife know he had changed his will after inheriting nearly $2m while his current wife (who was away on business in California at the time of the death) not? And is it a coincidence that the man’s estranged brother happened to be visiting from the West Coast at the time? And then there is the even sadder case of the foundering of the marriage of Kling and his wife of nearly 4 years, beautiful flame-haired supermodel Augusta.
“Miss Herzog,” Carella said slowly, “this isn’t Agatha Christie.”
Carella warns Kling that if he has concerns he must discuss them openly with Augusta, but instead the cop follows his training and decides to track her movements in the hope of catching her out in a lie. Of course it all ends in tears and smartly McBain doesn’t try to pull any surprises here, making it clear to us that the marriage is thus already over. This certainly conforms to Kling’s relentless bad luck when it comes to his love life. To this strand McBain adds a subplot involving Jack Halloran, who Kling arrested a dozen years earlier after the man killed his wife with a hatchet. Halloran is a really horrible piece of work, a racist murderer who spent his time in prison raping new inmates. This whole strand is all remarkably sordid, sad and pretty repellent and I rather wish it had been dispensed with since it doesn’t really go anywhere in terms of the main plotlines. What it does do is emphasise the essentially downbeat theme of this book, which is really about the failure of several marriage (McBain, aka Evan Hunter, was married 3 times), two of which end in murder and the third in a showdown at gunpoint. On the whole then, one of the lesser entries from the time.
This review was submitted as part of Bev’s 2015 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in ‘set in the USA’ the category: