This 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”
This 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.”
In 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: