HEAT (1981) by Ed McBain

McBain_Heat_panIt’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.”

McBain-HeatCarella 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:

012-Vintage-Silver-Heat

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

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

35 Responses to HEAT (1981) by Ed McBain

  1. As ever, Sergio, I love your candor. There certainly are plenty of books that fall into that category of ‘could have been so much better with an edit.’ Still, that said, McBain at his weakest is better than lots of others at their best. And I do think it’s great that you’re re-reading this fabulous series in order. I think that, when possible, it’s best to do that with this particular series, since it gives the reader a much better perspective on the characters.

  2. tracybham says:

    You have been working on this project (rereading the 87th Precinct books) for a little over 4 years, so that is about 9 books a year. Amazing. I should pick up my pace which is closer to 1 a year. I see that you put Sadie When She Died on your top 100 list. Were there others of the series you liked as well or almost as well? I will be reading The Con Man (#4) soon.

    • THanks Tracy – I am, in fact, trying to pick up the pace a bit as I realised it was taking me a hell of a lot longer than I planned! Con Man is a decnt entry – My top ones, so far? Well, I still think Sadie is really good (a very Simenon-like entry in fact, in the best sense). I would also recommend:
      Killer’s Choice
      Killer’s Wedge
      Give the Boys a Great Big Hand
      Fuzz
      Bread
      Blood relatives

      • Richard says:

        If only I’d had that list when I started, just weeks ago, with my first 87th Precinct book. At random I picked HAIL, HAIL THE GANG’S ALL HERE and found it confusing (13 characters introduced in first 12 pages) and disorienting (I have no idea what the layout of NYC is, and names are tossed out as if the reader should be a native). But I’m going to read another, and this time from your list as I just found a used copy of Killer’s Wedge.

        • TomCat says:

          Sergio’s ongoing reviews got me into this series and Killer’s Wedge was the first one I picked up, which was excellent and paid homage to my favorite mystery writer (John Dickson Carr). It also worked as a police-thriller, but you’ll see why for yourself.

          I have no excuse to return to the 87th precinct in the near future, because I have two of them on the shelves. I know I have Cop Hater, but not to sure about the second one. It could be The Mugger or The Pusher.

        • Thanks Richard – I think you’ll appreciate the very Carrian’s Killer’s Wedge!

      • tracybham says:

        Thanks for the list, Sergio. I still plan to read them in order but it is interesting to know which ones are really good.

  3. Yvette says:

    I’ve never read any of the books in this series. I did try one years ago but the idea that the city is New York but renamed something else stopped me cold. I could never get beyond that. Do not, please, ask me why. I have no real idea. I mean, if it’s supposed to be New York, why not call it what it is? What’s the point of changing the name? I don’t get it.

    Anyway, since you didn’t like this book much, I won’t consider it. Not that I would have done so anyway. Ha. Still, as always, I enjoyed reading your point of view and your take on things. You really should see about writing a book about books AND movies, Sergio.

    • Thanks Yvette, you’re a peach (just been re-reading Sheila Levina is Dead and Living in New York in your honour by the way – I will do a quick post on it). Well, look, I see what you mean, but calling it Isola meant that McBain could not worry about getting sued and of course bend things to meet his fictional needs. But it is a very fictionalised version too (the geography is similar but switched and tilted all to one side) so it’s not like it is New York except the name – it is all consistently fictionalised. In a way I think it gave McBain the authority he needed to be as authentic, or not, as he saw fit, which actually I quite like (obviously) 🙂

  4. Colin says:

    Well I’m another who’s making his way very slowly through these books, but having a good time all the same, so it’ll be some time before I get to this one. Of course I have already read the next in the series – still, we’ll leave that till you come to it officially.

  5. Every time you review one of this series, I think the same thing, which is that I should be reading more McBain. So thank you from the bottom of my heart for finding one that I can dismiss!

  6. The 87th Precinct books improved in the later 1980s. The plots became more sophisticated and McBain introduced more new characters.

  7. neer says:

    (McBain, aka Evan Hunter, was married 3 times), two of which end in murder and the third in a showdown at gunpoint.

    For a second, I thought you meant McBain’s marriages!

    I have only read Fuzz which I greatly enjoyed but somehow have not picked up anything by him after that. Perhaps next year….

  8. Sergio, good going on the McBain reads. I’m looking forward to the McBain special over at Patti’s where I hope to post a review of one of his books, though I’m not reading them in order as you are. I like the way McBain weaves the personal lives of the main characters right into his narrative, as I think crime fiction should be written.

  9. Hank says:

    I would definitely recommend “Heat” to novice McBain readers–I thought that this was one of the more outstanding efforts during a period in which McBain gradually revamped the series by adding additional layers and nuance to his usual formula of crime, cops, police procedure, and a city.

    The true main plot of the novel is the Kling/Augusta storyline. (It’s certainly more memorable than the featured plot.) I would dispute the contention that McBain tips his hand early in the novel that the marriage is already over. In fact, McBain remains fairly ambiguous about Augusta’s culpability; we see events play out mostly through Bert’s eyes (although McBain does suggest at one point that Bert makes a decision which, whether he realizes it or not, there is no turning back—and Bert will be confronted with many such decisions in upcoming novels.)

    As for the Halloran subplot—yes, it certainly does go somewhere in terms of at least one major plotline. And yes—I do think that the final series of events that involves Halloran is masterfully staged—an intense, harrowing, stunning piece of writing. Absolutely.

    I suppose I can understand why fans of genre fiction may have issues with “Heat” to the extent that it certainly breaks many of the rules of such fiction. In particular, McBain has developed the character of Bert Kling into something decidedly non-commercial–he’s not “likable”; he has no “relatability.”. Although Bert started out as a fresh-faced patrolman, earning a promotion to detective after cracking a murder case in “The Mugger”, Kling is plagued by more than just bad luck. McBain may have originally intended to portray Kling as something of an innocent outsider and develop his character in response to various tragedies and other indignities, but by this point (and again, going forward in the series) Kling does contribute however unintentionally, to his own misfortune and drama. He’s not a victim—just very flawed.

    What I find interesting about Kling, however, is that by this point McBain doesn’t even bother suggesting that Kling is anything special as a cop. In fact, in those novels when we actually see him working a case, there is evidence to suggest that his investigative skills are average at best. He’s certainly not as dogged as Carella, particularly in this novel; we know this because of Carella’s persistence in dealing with police bureaucracy.

    Again, beginning with “Heat”, the 87th novels would begin to interconnect to a far greater extent; McBain would bring his established characters into far sharper focus—including Isola which is as much a character in these novels as it is a location—and unflinchingly subject them to events, cultural movements, and reality of modern America. (I just finished “Mischief”, and much of what McBain wrote about American culture back in 1994 could have been written today, ten years after his death.)

    I suppose that the end of Bert’s marriage is also somewhat symbolic, as Augusta’s departure would kick off the gradual introduction of more and more recurring female characters to serve a purpose beyond that of mere love interest. Eileen Burke reappears in the next novel, “Lightning”, and her character would have a memorable arc that would extend for next decade. Gut-wrenching and dark, yes, but memorable. Frankly, I would suggest that anybody that prefers sanitized whodunits to get off of the McBain train now

    Anyway, yes I’ll defend and recommend “Heat”; I’ll mark the era in which McBain wrote this novel as an era in which the series began to improve, rather than decline, and I’ll characterize the novels as gaining more depth, rather than more pages—more words means more time to spend in the McBain universe with these great characters.

    • Thanks for all the feedback Hank but sorry that we are obviously not seeing eye eye on this one, especially in regard to the Halloran subplot! It’s not that I have difficulty with having brutality / bad language etc in a novel, but whether in context it works. Here, to me, it felt explitative and unearned, which was also something I feel abut Lightning (review coming very shortly). On the other hand, Poison and and Tricks, which have plenty of sex and violence and some really ripe language too, for me worked much better in integrating and justifying these elements.

      • Hank says:

        To me, all of the Halloran exposition is intended to lead up to that moment where Kling finally looks at Halloran, has no idea who he is, and doesn’t care. Halloran is is a horrible person, yes–a racist murderer. However, what McBain shows us is how Halloran is completely marginalized by society, and in turn, how Halloran is capable only of viewing the world from a perspective twisted by his time in prison. I don’t know that McBain exploits him. What McBain refuses to do is marginalize Halloran–McBain marginalizes nobody.in his big bad city. At the end of the day, however, Halloran’s existence remains so meaningless that the man he believes has destroyed him, the man he is trying to kill, has no recollection of who he is.

        Lightning is a difficult book, although again–I keep thinking that at this point McBain wasn’t going for big reveals, but for those devastating, memorable little moments of insight into his characters and into the world around them.

        • I think that is a reasonable way to interpret the Halloran part of the story, Hank, absolutely – I just don’t think it works in this book as presented. By making the character so repellent, it means there is little attempt to understand him and because the whole point is how disconnected he actually is from the main plot, thus it makes all the detail of his prison rapes seems gratuitous. Now, say the plot had been part of Lightning instead, I would absolutely agree with you more. I love McBain (onbiously) but there are strong elements of 50s and 60s paperback exploitation excess in a lot of his works (it is claimed he wrote a lot of sexploitation books in the 1960s under pseudonyms and I really wish he didn’t always present women characters by first checking them out physically because it leaves a bad taste after a while). It is clear that in Heat the sex and violence which are pretty much there to titillate the reader and the to the nasty s&m in Calypso and the prison flashbacks in Poison feel like they are just there to excite part of the readership, which to me lessens their value (which I regret particularly with Poison as that is I think a book that on balance works very well actually – reviews of these coming over the next three weeks in time for Patti Abbott’s celebration of the author).

          • Hank says:

            I’m looking forward to “Poison”, partly because I re-read it recently, but more significantly on a personal level–it was the first McBain novel I ever read.

          • I think I started around the same time it came out (around 1987) – It’s just possible that my first was The Mugger, but can’t recall precisely – I do know I bought it in Singapore though 🙂

  10. Pingback: LIGHTNING (1984) by Ed McBain | Tipping My Fedora

  11. Jon Creed says:

    Please note, contains SPOILERS for later books.

    I first read “Heat” in abbreviated form in Playboy magazine back in the 80s. Finally read the full book years later and was hooked on the 87th precinct. Re-read “Heat” on Kindle after reading this review.

    Read the earlier books, “Let’s Hear it for the Deaf Man” when Bert first met Augusta and “So Long As you both shall Live” when they got married- kidnapping by obsessed fan was too TV-episode-of-the-week for me but liked Augusta’s POV, she was more than just a pretty face. I was surprised how different she was in the earlier novels, pretty ingenue in the big city, surprisingly brave kidnap victim then a 180 to an ambitious, cheating adulteress in “Heat.”

    I agree with Hank, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that the marriage was over, a cop married to a model?- of course there was going to be friction, despite the fact Bert is a good looking alpha-male, he’s going to be paranoid and insecure. Augusta was earning way more than he was and her career was taking off, they were starting to lead separate lives. Despite the signs Ed McBain gave that Augusta was indeed cheating, earlier characterization of Augusta in the previous books would lead a reader to think maybe it was going to be a “comedy of errors” as Bert hoped before he opened the bedroom door, unfortunately he was proven right. Bert is convinced the man Augusta was sleeping with was the beefcake model Brad Douglas- who resembled Bert- but is shocked to catch her in bed with Larry Patterson, a short, wiry weasel who looked like his fellow cop Genero, must have been a massive blow to his ego. In the Playboy magazine version, Bert thought Patterson looked like one of the nameless file clerks in the 87th, a person he normally wouldn’t notice.

    Augusta has no POV in “Heat,” so the best guess is she slept with Patterson to get the commercial, she tells Bert that she doesn’t get many shots at Television and the spot would mean a lot to her career, it apparently does wonders for her as Bert avoids watching TV because she’s now in commercials in “ICE” and Cotton Hawes mentions Augusta is on all the magazine covers in “Fiddlers.” Bert is devastated and near-suicidal in “ICE” but he gets comfort with Eileen Burke; I don’t think he got over Augusta when he was with Eileen, he subconsciously compares them due to the similarities in appearance in “Eight Black Horses.” Bert finally finds real happiness when he falls in love with Sharyn Cooke but due to his past with Augusta- paranoia messes that relationship up in the end.

    In the final 87th Precinct novels, Augusta was mentioned more, revealing her real last name, Bert remembering the “Heat of that summer” and Bert telling Hawes that talking about Augusta doesn’t bother him and “it’s all water under the bridge.” With all that and his breakup with Sharyn, I’m certain if Ed McBain lived and the 87th Precinct novels continued, Augusta would’ve come back into Bert’s life somehow. Personally, I wouldn’t have them reconcile- Bert wouldn’t be that stupid- nor would go the Lifetime TV route and have Augusta dying or whatever. Too bad, “Heat” made me a fan of the 87th and would’ve like to have read a real conclusion to the Bert and Augusta story

    • Thanks very much for that Jon – I think you are right that her character does seem to change a bit suddenly in HEAT and that the later references suggest that maybe McBain had some residual doubts. But of course, the inability to keep a relationship going became Bert’s defining characteristic, so there was no way to get out of that for the sake of consistency – ah well, shame it didn’t go on longer or have a truly concluding story but 55 volumes in darn good going. Fascinating to hear about the differences in the digest version – cheers 🙂

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