What, 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.”
This 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: