TRICKS (1987) by Ed McBain

McBain_Tricks_panAs this book is set entirely on Halloween night, this seemed like a perfect fit. Pretty much the entire cast of the 87th appears in this ultra busy entry in Ed McBain’s series. We have four major cases: Eileen and Annie track a killer of prostitutes; Cotton looks for a missing magician; Brown tries to find out who is leaving the chopped up parts of a body all over the city; and Meyer and Carella take on and a group of kids who are going round trick or treating in stores and killing the staff before emptying the cash registers!

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.

Tricks (87th Precinct series #40)
First Published: 1987
Leading players: Eileen Burke, Andy Parker, Cotton Hawes, Bert Kling, Steve Carella, Arthur Brown, Annie Rawles, Meyer Meyer, Richard Genero, Hal Willis, Peter Byrnes, Richard Genero, Bob O’Brien, Monoghan & Monroe

“And one of the little kids shot him in the head.”

Following on from Poison, which successfully sustained its 250-page length while telling only one story, albeit one spread across several years (if you include the extensive flashbacks), this same-sized novel takes the opposite approach, with equally pleasing results. This is a kaleidoscopic view of Halloween night (it all takes place in less than 12 hours), with plots and characters overlapping in various entertaining ways. Indeed, one of the best sections of the book sees McBain cut to and from two parallel dialogue scenes in different parts of the city without so much as a line break to alert the reader to this! Once you get used to the idea, it works extremely well in conveying the maelstrom of activity.

“Why does this always happen to me?” Genero asked God.

McBain_Tricks_pbOn top of the four main plots, some of which dovetail into each other, we also have a variety of subsidiary storylines. In one Genero, the Squad’s, and maybe the world’s, dumbest cop, facing off successfully against a group of four youths intent on setting fire to a building; the eternal bad copy Andy Parker takes the night off having the best time of his life ever after hooking up with Peaches Muldoon, who has been getting crank calls, and heads off to various parties where he ‘pretends’ to be a cop and, bizarrely, finds that he is incredibly comfortable with portraying a fictionalised version of himself as opposed to the real thing, which deep down we know he hates. And which ultimately leads him to probably the best bit of detective work he will ever accomplish. If this sounds a bit ‘meta’ well, to a degree it is, but its done so well that I think casual readers won;t mind a bit while more serious students of the genre will want to sit up and take note to see how it’s done. Here is a very amusing sidenote in which McBain comments on his own ‘arrested time’ approach to chronology (the characters in the series very quickly stopped ageing – Teddy and Steve’s twin children, April And Mark, for example, almost reached their eleventh birthday in the late 1960s and never got any older):

“… not too long ago – well, not too long ago by precinct time, where sometimes an hour seemed an eternity …”

McBain_Tricks_pb2I was always concerned, when I decided to embark on my mammoth plan to go through the entire series of 55 volumes in chronological order (all my previous reviews, 39 so far, are indexed here), that from the late 70s I would be less positive about the books as they got longer and longer. In some cases McBain definitely pads them out and the increased level of sex and bad language, which while probably all necessary to compete in a busy marketplace, was never to my personal taste. But together with Poison, also published in 1987, this is another late winner from McBain. The extra length is arrived at through a satisfying variety of active storylines as well as extended characters scenes, such as Eileen’s stakeout in a bar down at the docks, which could easily be edited into a short, two-act short play. And all of it paying off with plenty of good dialogue and clever plotting, always the hallmark of McBain at his best, and with none of the sentimentality that occasionally marred his work. This is book is funny, profane, clever and exciting and also, in its own way, moving – if you want a jumping on point for the later incarnation of the series, this is the perfect place to do it.

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


***** (4 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.

40 Responses to TRICKS (1987) by Ed McBain

  1. realthog says:

    I think this may be one of the 87ths that I haven’t read although (checks catalogue) I do seem to have a copy . . . somewhere. Must dig it out.

  2. tracybham says:

    I did read about this being set at Halloween so I am glad you covered it now. And I like the idea of it covering only 12 hours. When I get closer to this point, I will be able to use your reviews to check for the better novels in the series.

  3. Margot Kinberg says:

    Trust McBain to be able to manage so many plot threads and characters at once, Sergio. Very glad you enjoyed this, and it shows that a really talented author can produce a fine story even after writing many, many others.

  4. Colin says:

    Nice choice for the time of year. I’m particularly to pleased to see you still feel the quality was retained as McBain moved on to longer books at this stage.

  5. TomCat says:

    Hey, this is one of the very few from the series I have actually read, but realize that’s hardly something to brag about on this blog. 😉 But I’ll get back to this series.

    • Excellent TC – did you like it? Hope you have a smashing Halloween (I shall at the cinema enjoying SPECTRE, which not coincidentally opens with a sequence set during the Day of the Dead …)

  6. Love that cover with the pumpkin! TRICKS is one of my favorite 87th Precinct novels. Ed McBain was near the top of his game when he wrote this one!

  7. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Genero was always such a jerk, but I kind of felt sorry for him too…….

  8. Richard says:

    It seems McBain rarely wrote a straight forward mystery novel, instead going with the multiple plotlines. It’s as if he had trouble coming up with plots that would sustain a whole novel or else he felt he had to include his large repertory cast in every book.

    • Hi Richard – well, the 87th books very originally Simenon-length, rarely more than 175 pages or so. Occasionally, as with The Deaf Man capers, you would get something cisty-wide, but otherwise the focus is either narrowly on a single case or spread across several, in a style that is more generally associated with police procedurals. This was the style of the McBain procedurals – his other thrillers, and his more mainstream books as by Evan Hunter, deploy a more conventional narrative approach. With the 87th series, the trick was in keeping it varied from book to book.

  9. Matt Paust says:

    Sounds like the perfect treat for tomorrow night’s reading. Thanks, Sergio.

  10. Steve says:

    Tricks is one of my favourites. Lots of twists and turns, surprises and tricks (Tricks is the perfect title for this book). There is so much going on but it is all so brilliantly entertaining.

  11. Bev Hankins says:

    Happy Halloween, Sergio! Great choice for the time of year.

  12. Happy Halloween, Sergio! Talking about multiple plot points that read like four stories in a novel, did McBain write single plot stories? I think I’d do well to revisit your 39 reviews of his books. Well done!

  13. Hank says:

    I have mixed feeling about “Tricks”, to the extent that it represents McBain’s ultimate exercise of style over substance–parts of it are incredibly over-the-top. If “So Long As You Both Shall Live” struck me as “fan service”, so does “Tricks”–despite the appalling body count, it’s a fun read for McBain fans, a much better use of the gimmick he tried in “Hail Hail, The Gang’s All Here”.

    Because it’s such a fun read, and so over-the-top, it’s easy to spot areas vulnerable to criticism–and tough to defend such criticism. The Eileen storyline was great, and I really liked Genero’s watershed moment. But in retrospect, the magician and the Parker storylines don’t hold up under close scrutiny, even if the magician plot is fairly ingenious. (The problem with Parker is simple: Fat Ollie Weeks is essentially Andy Parker squared; because of this, the character flaws which ostensibly comprise Parker’s personality seem deliberately muted. It does seem,however–I’d have to double-check–that from this novel onward, Parker would be McBain’s go-to detective for comic relief, instead of Genero.)

    Also disconcerting–serious harm comes to not one, but two of the 87th detectives as they investigate a holdup, an incident which seems oddly portrayed almost as a throw-away plot point. (I’m not sure how else to put this without spoiling things, just that it is a significant event that seems buried amid everything else that is happening in the novel, and one that seems mostly forgotten in subsequent novels.)

    However, my feelings about “Tricks” are mixed only to the extent that I was able to spot these flaws upon re-reading. “Tricks” is the type of McBain novel that I liken to eating candy (how’s that for a seasonal reference?). It’s just a fun, engaging read, the ideal novel to have with you on an airplane, with a witty narrative that zips along. A terrific example of McBain playing in the sandbox that he had built buy this point.

    • Thanks for that Hank – it does feel a bit like a lark, but a seasonal one, and I really enjoyed it. I indeed enjoy Parker having a good day for a change – in that sense he does seem for potentially redeemable that Ollie.

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

  15. justjack says:

    I liked Tricks very much, especially in contrast to the previous Poison, which I found to be rather gimmicky, with the page-number padding too obviously done. Seeing all the different story lines happening simultaneously was a fun way to bring in a larger number of detectives into the book. And I also liked Genero’s unexpected moment in the sun.

    But I also agree with Hank’s criticism of McBain’s handling of the way that a couple of the detectives come in for some injury. And I think that this is related to the problem of no longer having the cops age (although there was a neat passage where McBain sneakily refers back to the time when his editors wouldn’t let him kill off Steve Carella way back in The Pusher). I mean, either bad things never happen to the protagonists, or else bad things occasionally do happen to them, in which case just as in real life, you sometimes have to make way for new characters to replace the old ones. But I find it difficult to accept the idea of accumulating injuries book after book, and not have it exact a serious psychological toll on the cops involved.

    And on another related note, speaking of serious psychological tolls, I am now just about 30 pages into the *next* book, Lullaby, and am surprised to see that the Bert Kling / Eileen Burke storyline from Tricks is mentioned, but nothing at all about the harm that befalls two of the cops. What’s going on?

    • Glad you also loked TRICKS, defonitely a strong title from the latter years of the series. McBain wss always remarkably sentimental about some thing and really tough about others. I agree that it can be a bit disconcerting and his handling of the paet of the plot about the cops. In fact, the Kling / Burke stiryline really took on a life of ots own!

  16. Pingback: Ranking the 87th Precinct Mysteries | Tipping My Fedora

  17. robykeys82 says:

    I enjoyed this very much, but the motive behind the murder involving the Magician looks a bit weird to me…

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