LIGHTNING (1984) by Ed McBain

McBain_Lightning_panThis is a rather problematic entry in the 87th Precinct series, though outwardly it conforms to the structure  of many of McBain’s efforts from the era: it begins with Monoghan & Monroe making comments in bad taste about a dead body, Carella investigates the murder, there are several unrelated subplots, a hidden pattern is discovered, culminating in a confession by the murderer during a Q&A back at headquarters. But McBain has meatier things on his mind, which can, depending on your perspective, either elevate this book or seriously unbalance it as a police procedural. Later it was turned into an okay TV-Movie that served to launch the short-lived series, Ed McBain 87th Precinct (1995-97). We begin in a park at night …

I submit this review for  Bev’s Vintage Mystery Challenge; and Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason at his unmissable Sweet Freedom blog; and in anticipation of Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog, which on Friday celebrates the work of Ed McBain.

Lightning (87th Precinct series #37)
First Published: 1984
Leading players: Steve Carella, Cotton Hawes, Eileen Burke, Meyer Meyer, Bert Kling, Arthur Brown, Richard Genero, Fat Ollie Weeks, Monoghan & Monroe

“What the hell is this?” Monroe said. “The Wild West?”

The main plot sees the team investigate a series of particularly gruesome deaths in public places so that they can be discovered. Such attention-seeking criminality is usually the MO of Arch-criminal ‘The Deaf Man’  – is he back to taunt the 87th again? In parallel, the boys and girls of the Squad also have to find a serial rapist. Both cases are the most substantive elements that serve to explore the theme of the book – the victimisation of women by men. This is shown in several ways and provides the book with a particularly strong textual underpinning. At one end of the scale we have a vignette detailing the sexual harassment suffered by Teddy when she applies for a job (I’m glad to say she ends it by delivering a mighty slap in the face). One the other are two really brutal cases. One sees Carella and Hawes (who makes a welcome return to the limelight after a very, very long time – his last major appearance was in Bread, 12 years earlier) investigate a series murders involving young female track runners who, after being killed, are strung up from lampposts. At the same time Eileen Burke, who has been seeing Bert Kling for several months now, is attached to act as a decoy to flush out an incredibly nasty rapist who keeps attacking the same women over and over again.

“She trembled in fear, and in shame, and in helpless desperation”

McBain-Lightning_pbThis storyline certainly constitutes the strongest and most substantial part of the book (the motive for murders of the track athletes proves to be pretty laughable) and makes for very queasy-making reading, especially when its motive and method is revealed, opening up a huge can of worms. This is of course the intention and McBain’s willingness to tackle really controversial material is to be applauded, though one also has to  question the extent to which this ultimately pushes against the limitations of the genre so that one senses the strain when it starts to push back. There are explicit and truly nauseating murder and rape scenes depicted here and one does start to question how much the author can really have his cake and eat it. On the on hand McBain is explicitly attacking violence against women and on the other includes  gruesome detail that can be construed as being exploitative and pandering to a debased readership. To try to balance this unpalatable material, McBain works very hard to inject humanity and humour so that, for instance, most of chapter six is devoted to the happy nocturnal activities of the squad members with their romantic partners (including Hawes’ latest flame, Annie Rawles, from the rape unit). I have to say though that in my opinion, despite the best of intentions, McBain does not get the balance right here. The return of Eileen to the series was an important development but McBain’s tendency to describe women always in sexual terms is definitely a problem area and undermines his attempts to look at situations through a female perspective. Later books would manage this a bit better. And then there is the post-modern humour …

“… you familiar with “Hill Street Blues“? It’s a television show”.
“I’m familiar with it,” said Meyer.
“I caught a rerun last week it musta have been. They had a guy on it I think they stole from me.”

The book does in fact contain a lot of levity though, which doesn’t always sit comfortably with the predominantly grim material. Most of the easy laughs come at the expense of Genero, easily the stupidest cop on the force (and possibly in police procedural literature) and there is also a subplot about Meyer trying a toupee. We also get some inter-textual jokeyness. Thirty years earlier, when this series began, in the books there would be lots of references to, and comparisons with, the Jack Webb TV and radio show, Dragnet. In the 70s McBain occasionally referred to Columbo and Kojak even, but in this book he got to vent, albeit humorously, about Hill Street Blues, a series he felt had taken rather a lot from his books. Fat Ollie Weeks indeed indulges in two separate rants about the show, complaining that the characters ‘Charlie Weeks’ and ‘Frank Furillo’ are clearly based on himself and Carella, leading to some decidedly postmodern moments, which certainly lightens the mood!

“To me, they sound almost like the same name.”
“The way Howard Hunter sounds like Evan Hunter?”
“That aint the same at all.”

McBain-Lightning_tvmovieIn 1995 the book really was adapted for TV, with Randy Quaid (always a versatile thespian) making for a physically slightly unlikely Carella and Ving Rhames perfectly cast as Arthur Brown. The adaptation is reasonably faithful actually, considering it only adapts one half of the book. Not unreasonably, the entire rape storyline has been removed. To make up for this filleting, it instead incorporates (uncredited) most of the material relating to break-up of Kling’s marriage from the previous book in the series, Ice. (As a result, this was all omitted when the same producers adapted that book for the series, out of sequence, the following year). Several other changes are also made, with Steve and Teddy here not being a long-standing married couple but actually meeting for the first time when she comes across the first body while out jogging in the park. Also the bodies are no longer strung up, but instead left on the ground, adorned with a drawing of a lightning bolt and an American flag. The development of the story otherwise follows the book, but puts a great emphasis on Carella and Teddy’s budding romance (which incidentally is not taken from McBain, who told this story his way in Cop Hater). It all makes for a perfectly entertaining if not especial distinguished policier – the producers would do much better with the next adaptation in the TV series, Heat (which I previously reviewed here).

Incidentally, George Kelley featured this same book a little while back over at his blog.

Ed McBain 87th Precinct: Lightning (1995)
Director: Bruce Paltrow
Producer: Diana Kerew
Screenplay: Mike Krohn, Dan Levine
Cinematography: Kenneth Zunder
Art Direction: Richard Sherman
Music: Peter Bernstein
Cast: Randy Quaid (Carella), Ving Rhames (Brown), Alex McArthur (Kling),  Eddie Jones (Byrnes), Alan Blumenfeld  (Ollie Weeks), Ron Perkins (Meyer),  Deanne Bray (Teddy),
Richard Portnow (Monaghan), Dayton Callie (Monroe)

This review was submitted as part of Bev’s 2015 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘academic’ category as the victims are all college students:


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

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

24 Responses to LIGHTNING (1984) by Ed McBain

  1. Colin says:

    I have this one but since I’m trying to read them in order (with the exception of the last book reviewed) as you’ve done it’s going to take a long time to get to. It sounds like a challenging read in some ways.

    • Well, it was for a difficult title in some respects and I certainly would not suggest it as the right place to start. More interesting if ou are acquainted with the characters already I think.

      • Colin says:

        Yes, I’m sure you’re right. By the time I get round to this title I’ll be pretty well acquainted.

        • Sounds like it 🙂 And of course it is a question of personal taste. Just because I think he got the balance wrong here may not be a consensus view …

          • Colin says:

            Of course. There’s no point in my chiming in on that aspect until I actually read it.
            On the characterization, I’ll have to say that even with my own fairly limited experience of the series, I think McBain generally does a good job of getting into the characters.

          • The upside of the later books is definitely the opportunity to spend more time with the characters (both series and non). I have been reading a lot of McBain of late after a year-long dry spell (posting 2 more reviews this week and then another at the end of next month for Halloween) and mostly its been positive. Which for a series that had been runnign for 30 years is really saying something!

          • Colin says:

            Good on you, that’s a lot of material you’ve gotten through in a short time.

          • Well, there is a small element of bloody-mindedness tied in to the overall enjoyment, I’ll admit – never throught it would take me so long to review them all!

          • Colin says:

            There is a lot of stuff to get through though so it’s bound to take time, and that’s not to speak of the write-ups. I’d hate to take on such a project myself as I can’t imagine how long I’d need.

          • That’s me stubborn as a mule … I will get it done by next year though, even at the risk of tunring this into the McBain review blog for a while!

          • Colin says:

            Well that’s OK by me – if it weren’t for your championing of the series, I suspect they would have continued to pass me by.

          • Thanks Colin, much appreciate the support!

  2. Margot Kinberg says:

    I know just exactly what you mean, Sergio, about that balance. It is really, really hard to get it right, even for someone of McBain’s calibre. One almost wishes he hadn’t aimed quite so high (Can I put it that way?), ‘though I can’t say I blame him. And it’s especially difficult when it’s such an emotionally charged issue. Still, it’s good to hear that there are some things to like about the book (as there are with most McBains, really).

    • THanks Margot – I think McBain/Hunter was always ambitious but I think his background in commercial/exploitation literature does make itself felt in a rather unwelcome way here.

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    I remember loving the Hill Street reference but being uncomfortable with the graphic content. His books did tend to go that way a little if I recall correctly and it made me less keen to read the later books.

  4. Hank says:

    This is a hard novel to defend. Of the two major plots, the one involving the athletes was entirely implausible (particularly the idea that a U.S.Olympic gold medal winner would go from a guest appearance with Johnny Carson to such complete obscurity in just fifteen years’ time) and although the plot involving the serial rapist was extremely well-crafted and written (particularly the way Annie Rawles takes charge during the last couple of chapters) the curious motive and modus operandi for the crimes remains implausible as well.

    That said, I did sense that McBain’s exploration of the private lives of his detectives was one of his favorite juxtapositions–that of the private lives of his cops against the often horrifying circumstances of their jobs. Here, however, one of the cops actually does become a victim, challenging these boundaries, and setting up the memorable moment near the end when Carella warns Fat Ollie, “Don’t ever let those words pass your lips again.”

    I’m also not sure how I feel about how McBain kept referencing the Deaf Man throughout the novel. Clearly he was both teasing his audience and setting up a planned upcoming appearance by the character, but that’s all it seems to be.

    One thing I might as well mention–although many 87th Precinct chronologies place the short story, “And All Through The House” between “Mischief) and “Romance”, this is due to the fact that the story was published as a novelty hardcover in 1994, between publication of those two novels. However, it was first published after “Lightning” and before “Eight Black Horses”, in the December 1984 issue of Playboy. That said, the story doesn’t really fit into the chronology of these two novels at all; both the short story and “8BH” depict very different events purportedly taking place on Christmas Eve.

    Still, if nothing else, I would still recommend “Lightning” as being an important chapter in McBain’s memorable character arc for Eileen Burke, which more or less began with “Ice” and runs through “Mischief”.

    • Thanks very much chum – I think we are basically in complete agreement on this one. It is an important book in the series and crucial to Eileen’s story but is let down by plausibility issues and, to me at least, some misjudgements as to tone. Yes, the Deaf Man tease does seem to be there just to help set up the closing sting leading to the next book in the series. Of all the books to do that in, this wasn’t the one to choose really. I think these wild shifts in tone to tend to suggest that McBain/Hunter was aware of how much he was pushing things here and perhaps had some doubts about how it might be received. I take your point about the Christmas story – I have placed the hardback edition in its publication chronology of necessity but will in fact be reviewing itthis December, more or less in the right place!

  5. tracybham says:

    I would love to see that movie, even if it is a mangled adaptation. I love Ving Rhames, and he would be great in that role.

  6. realthog says:

    I reacall the Hill Street Blues ranting more vividly than I do the rest of the book, which must say something about me!

  7. Pingback: EIGHT BLACK HORSES (1985) by Ed McBain | Tipping My Fedora

  8. Pingback: LULLABY (1989) by Ed McBain | Tipping My Fedora

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