POISON (1987) by Ed McBain

McBain-Poison_pbWhat, another 87th Precinct review at Fedora? Well, it’s a pretty good one and I wanted to share … Carella takes the backseat while perennial second banana Hal Willis is pleasingly brought to the fore in this story of a beguiling Texas oil heiress with a string of boyfriends, all of whom know about each other and seem to be very happy with the arrangement. But it could just be that she is the spider at the centre of a murderous web, a femme fatale murdering her partners one at a time – and compact, martial arts expert Willis just may be next when he falls head over heels in love with the prime suspect!

I submit this review for  Bev’s Vintage Mystery Challenge.

Poison (87th Precinct series #39)
First Published: 1987
Leading players: Hal Willis, Steve Carella, Meyer Meyer, Bert Kling, Arthur Brown, Cotton Hawes, Sam Grossman, Monoghan & Monroe, Peter Byrnes

“I didn’t kill him,” she said at once.
“Who said you did?”

As a chilly March turns into a balmy and then very wet April, the bodies just start to pile up. Marilyn Hollis is in her mid twenties, loaded with money, gorgeous looking, and believes in free love and plenty of it. Currently in fact she is seeing four men. But then her boyfriends start to die. First to go is Ted, who dies of nicotine poisoning and who pretty much expires while trying to leave a message on her answering machine. Did he kill himself or was it murder – and how did ge get the poison? Next up is Basil, who is also found in his own apartment, but this time stabbed to death – is she responsible or is she in fact the victim? Hal Willis takes point on this one and ends up doing the sort of thing that Kling usually does – falling in love with a suspect. He very quickly starts sleeping with Marilyn despite the fact that she has lied to him about nearly everything since they first met. Then things get really serious – Hal in fact moves in with Marilyn, during the investigation! Then another boyfriend, Nelson, dies of nicotine poisoning shortly after a visit from Marilyn …

“Just once in his life, he would love investigating a case involving two men stranded on a desert island, one the victim, the other the obvious killer.”

McBain-Poison_hbThis is a very linear and solidly plotted volume, with little of the excess fat too often found in the books from this era. In the 50s and early 60s the books only needed an A plot and maybe a subsidiary story to fill 150 pages – but as the books got longer this was harder to manage. One of the reasons I like Poison is that it really keeps to just the one case (well, apart from a brief digression involving a shooting of a noisy patron in a cinema showing of Out of Africa). To reach the now requisite minimum length of 250 pages, McBain instead provides a very extended flashback to Marilyn’s background as well as the development of her relationship with Hal, all of this character building working pretty well.

“Am I a suspect or a target?”

Having said that, our free-spirited friend Marilyn really does seem to belongs to the swinging sixties and not the sexually conservative post-AIDS era (though McBain, presumably slight aware of this, makes sure that assorted STDs do at least get a brief acknowledgement). Willis gets smitten with Marilyn very early on in the story, thus justifying McBain’s promotion of him to centre-stage. We get to find out a lot more about the diminutive detective and the personal tragedy that drives him on. We also get a fair amount of sex, as McBain was wont to do in his books by this time, and some violence too, especially in relation to some very nasty going on in a Mexican prison, some of which does feel at times like a low-grade Women in Prison (WIP) movie, though I think McBain just manages to keep on the right side of it being exploitative – just about! Which is to say that this, overall, is one of the better volumes from this era, successfully updating and expanding the formula that had served Ed McBain so well over the past three decades, investing in character rather than inconsequential padding. I also like this book because it defines what a ‘BOLO’ is – one hears it used endlessly on the likes of NCIS but never actually knew what it stood for – according to McBain, is is short for ‘Be On the Look Out.’

This review was submitted as part of Bev’s 2015 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in ‘murder method in the title’ the category:


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

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

26 Responses to POISON (1987) by Ed McBain

  1. Colin says:

    Really burning up these 87th Precinct reviews lately! OK, this is one I won’t be getting to for a good long time yet but I’m pleased to hear it gets a thumbs up from you.

  2. tracybham says:

    Sounds interesting, I look forward to it when I finally get there.

  3. TomCat says:

    I’ve no idea when I’ll get around to this one, but I’ll make an effort to read Cop Killer before the end of the year.

  4. Simon says:

    I read my first 87th Precinct novel, “Fuzz” when I was fifteen. I think it was because I had been aware of the film that had just been released, and although I was too young to (legally) watch it, the poster intrigued me. I then devoured every single one I could find, though back then, I read them out of sequence. I now have every one, a very eclectic mix of paperbacks and hardbacks, and your reviews make me go back and re read them with the same relish and enjoyment I had the first time round. For me, they never get stale. I’m just surprised at how McBain, considering how influential he was in the crime genre, is so relatively unknown ( I find) in the UK, and how no one seems to be publishing his books any more…
    I absolutely love your reviews, and look forward to them, it makes me realise there are others out there who share my love of McBain.
    ( I finally saw ” Fuzz” on to some years later, and although I didn’t enjoy the comic tone, and the way Meyer was reduced to comic relief ” the lieutenant doesn’t like you, Meyer”- I thrilled at seeing these characters brought to life). It does beg for me, another question though. If McBain wrote the screenplay for ” Fuzz” why did he make it such a slapstick in places?
    Sorry for the long post, thanks for listening, keep these reviews coming!

    • Thanks very much for all the great feedback Simon, much appreciated. In the case of Fuzz the movie, the book is pretty comedic already, so I guess it just got pushed further in that direction. I know what you mean about being surprised by hi scomparative lack of presence only 10 years after his death – McBain was clearly pretty popular in his day (his books seemed ubiquitous in stores, new and second hand) but perhaps now may seem a little old-fashioned, or at least those published until the 80s, which otherwise seem to hold up very well to me.

  5. Bev Hankins says:

    Another great review, Sergio. You do love your McBain books…. 🙂 You’ll be pleased to know that I’m finally reading my very first one (though I’m being naughty and starting mid-stream rather than at the beginning). I’m “this” close to finishing Ax….

  6. Hank says:

    “Poison” has the distinction of being the very first McBain novel I ever read. I bought it at a grocery store, so it must have just come out in paperback; I suppose I was expecting a standard cop thriller, but “Poison” was something very different, and I can’t say that it immediately prompted me to seek out more McBain titles.

    Of course, all these years later, what makes “Poison different is what I like about the novel. Part of me wonders if McBain didn’t originally come up with Marilyn’s fairly extensive backstory as a completely separate novel. This was also my first brush with McBain’s use of materials such as ads torn from magazines and dental charts. And of all the A-story mysteries McBain ever concocted, the murders in “Poison” may be his most ingenious.

    I re-read “Poison” a couple of months ago, and I guess my only real problem with the novel is more of a literary issue, in that I guess I never quite understood what it was that attracted Marilyn to Willis. Willis himself wonders this, of course, but even if McBain was trying to keep things ambiguous in order to build suspense–completely understandable–it still bothers me.

    Still, there’s too much to like in this novel. Willis and Marilyn go out to dinner with Bert and Eileen, who still bears the scar from her rape. And it also strikes me how McBain plucked Willis from the supporting cast and turned him from a “type”–he was “the short cop who knew judo”–into a much deeper character. (In contrast to Cotton Hawes, who started out as more of a principal character, “starring” is a couple of novels and stories, but who by this point in the series had been reduced to a supporting type–“the redheaded Lothario” or some such thing.)

    I don’t think it’s giving away too much to say that Hal Willis would go on to enjoy a genuinely happy ending by the time the final 87th Precinct novel was published n 2005–a very satisfying and touching wrap-up, literally a half-century in the making.

    But I knew none of this at the time I first read “Poison”; all I knew initially was that McBain (whoever he was) had created something quite different from the other supermarket paperbacks I had been reading.

    • Thanks very much Jank – I agree with you completely on this one – indeed, I also wondered how much Marilyn’s story seemed to be product of maybe one of his racier ‘undercover’ jobs from the 60s. Its great that Willis gets elevated but I also see exactly your point, that we are not ever clear what the basis for the sttraction for her is. Its a book I really liked – not perfect and not necessarily completetypical of the series, but a really good one all the same. Should say upfront, I have not not read any fo the final half dozen so will be getting to them next year completely fresh.

  7. Pingback: TRICKS (1987) by Ed McBain | Tipping My Fedora

  8. Pingback: VESPERS (1990) by Ed McBain | Tipping My Fedora

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