LULLABY (1989) by Ed McBain

McBain_Lullaby_panMy pan edition (on the right), at nearly 350 pages, marks this as the chunkiest book in the 87th Precinct thus far (I reviewed the previous 40 in the series here) and as we know, length did become a bit of an issue with these later books, some coping much better than other with the need to provide heftier tomes in the marketplace. How does this one fare? Well, this one certainly packs an emotional punch, as we begin without any dawdling with Carella and Meyer on the scene of a heinous crime on a crisp New Year’s morning.

I submit this review for  Bev’s Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt; and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog.

Lullaby (87th Precinct series #41)
First Published: 1989
Leading players: Steve Carella, Meyer Meyer, Bert Kling, Eileen Burke, Hal Willis, Monoghan & Monroe, Teddy Carella, Fats Donner, Danny Gimp, Fat Ollie Weeks

“Carella wondered when she would start screaming.”

This book has three distinct plots that run in parallel but do not otherwise intersect: first and foremost is the murder of a 17-year-old baby sitter and the infant she was looking after, which is investigated by Carella and Meyer; Bert Kling instead has to deal with a gang case involving a drug deal; while Eileen Burke (and, one suspects, Kling’s soon to be  ex-girlfriend) goes to counselling to help her decide whether to stay on the force following the trauma of her being sexually assaulted (an event depicted in the 1984 entry, Lightning) and her killing of a suspected rapist three months earlier (in Tricks). That entry had also seen Carella get shot, leading to a chiding from his long-time informant Danny Gimp:

“You got to stop getting shot,” Danny said.
“I know.”
“That can be a bad failing for a cop.”
“I know.”
“So be more careful.”
“I will.”

McBain_Lllaby_pbSections like this do provide a bit levity (just like the unexplained reference to 15 October being the birthday of great men – it was, in fact, McBain’s own …), which is just as well in a book that for the most part has to deal with some very grim material as Meyer and Carella try to figure our just why the six-month old child and the 17-year-old baby sitter were killed. Was it the result of a burglary gone wrong, the ex-boyfriend of the baby-sitter taking revenge after she dumped him, or something else? And whose POV do we occasionally slip into and what are they up to? Matters get much more complicated when it turns out the baby was adopted and the young mother of the child, now back living in Seattle, is shot at point-blank range in her own home …

The other crime plot is also complex, though less pressing. Kling sees a man being assaulted and wades in and stumbles in to what may or may not be a case involving a major drug shipment – the problem is that the man whose life he saved is incredibly unreliable. And yet it is clear that a Jamaican gang (or ‘posse’) is definitely out to get him – and they then see Kling talking to him, ratcheting up the risk factor for our detective, who is already deeply troubled by Eileen’s decision to call off their relationship while she goes into therapy. By the end of the novel all three strands will have reached dramatic and unexpected conclusions. While there is no real attempt to link the plots thematically, and there are maybe a few too many red-herrings in the murder case, this is none the less a solid, very professional entry in the series, one that is especially important for what it tells us about Eileen personal life. We also get to find out what Monoghan’s first name is (OK, I’ll spoil, it’s ‘Michael’).

This review is submitted as part of Bev’s 2016 Silver Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt in ‘object of any other colour’ category for the teddy bear on the cover of my pan edition:


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

This entry was posted in 2016 Silver Vintage Scavenger Hunt, 87th Precinct, Ed McBain, Friday's Forgotten Book, New York, Police procedural. Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to LULLABY (1989) by Ed McBain

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    I’m so glad you included the bits you did, Sergio. This may not be the very best of this series, but it does include that delightful dark wit and sarcasm that I think works really well in these novels, even in the darker ones. Glad you found much to like in this.

    • Thanks Margot – I always knew the later ones would be potentially less interesting to re-read (or in some case, encounter for the first time) but actually the 80s has, with one especially noteworthy exception, seen McBain very much at his later best.

  2. realthog says:

    Great writeup. From what I recall of the book (and indeed from your own description), I’d say you were being a bit stingy with just three tips.

    • I liked it less than the two that preceeded it John but certainly better than some of the titles from the 80s that I found less to my taste. Si I parallel parked it in the middle … 🙂

  3. Bev Hankins says:

    I already knew that it was unlikely that I would work my way all the way through McBain’s books–I’m afraid I don’t have the love for them that you do, Sergio. [I did enjoy my first foray–Ax–but I know it’s not a must-have series for me.] I definitely know that I don’t want to make it to this one–I don’t do child-death well. The killing of the infant and babysitter would just not go down well for me. Great review as always, though!

  4. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Even less than top drawer McBain is good! Nice review!

  5. Colin says:

    I can see the page count issue coming to the fore again, Sergio! Still, 350 doesn’t sound too bad and the story appears to take in some interesting aspects of the characters’ lives.

    • I agree Colin – I emntion it because it become nigh on inescapable at this point so I do want to mark the longest! However, trivia aside, the three cases are handled well – I would have given it a higher score if the cases had intersected at least themaically, but it is all done very expertly indeed and it was a very quick read as I found the McBain style as engrossing as ever!

  6. When I read through the comments, I found that Bev had expressed exactly my thoughts. I will read more Ed McBain, but it doesn’t sound like this one will be top of the list, between subject matter and length. Isn’t his selling point the brevity of the books…?

    • Hi Moira – well, they were all about 170 pages long until about 1977 and then started ballooning. I think this is a pretty solid read and I think some fo his longer ones are very good in fact, but in those he usually has multiple cases so you get te equivalent of two of his old-length novels in one – bargain!

  7. Sometimes less is more. That’s how I felt about the later 87th Precinct books. As they got longer, I found them less interesting. I think the change in publishers might have had an effect on the length of the books in the series. McBain may have been pressured to write longer books.

    • I’m sure tyou are right about that george, certainly a pressure of the market place. I think some of the books, like TRICKS, hold up extremely well at the longer length though.

  8. Sergio, three different plots unconnected to each other, I suppose, requires a certain writing skill that McBain seemed to have mastered. From what I gather, through your reviews, he was comfortable with that approach. I mean, he certainly didn’t worry the narrative might read disjointed. I think I have this title with the second cover.

    • Well, this might be an interesting one to look at Prashant – hope you do, though please note, it does, I should warn you, spoil the endings of a couple of earlier volumes however

  9. tracybham says:

    Another reminder that I need to make the 87th Precinct books a priority soon. Especially as I am still near the beginning where the books are short and quick.

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  11. justjack says:

    Just finished Lullaby this morning! I enjoyed it. For the most part.

    Telling three separate but simultaneous stories reminds me of what happened to the later seasons of MASH. I always thought it a symptom of lazy screenwriting, that they couldn’t come up with a solid 23-minute story and had to resort to non-related vignettes. In Ed McBain’s case, I’m willing to cut him a bit more slack, since he was being asked to fill more time than in the earlier years. And in both the case of MASH as well as the 87th Precinct, in the end the separate-thread style isn’t a deal-breaker for me, because I like all the characters so much.

    I liked the double homicide story the best. I love to read about the kind of slogging procedure that Carella and Meyer had to work through to break the case–no clever locked-room solutions, just simply following the leads. What Harry Bosch calls “Get Off Your Ass And Knock On Doors.”

    I found the details of the drug deal story to be incomprehensible, but finally decided to just treat it all as one big maguffin and instead concentrate on the interesting characters. And Hooray for any chance to spend a little time–at arm’s length, of course!–with Fat Ollie Weeks. Fat Ollie is one of my favorite secondary characters. I love that, for all his personal repulsiveness and bigotry, he’s actually a good detective. He’s quite a vivid character, what with his annoying habit of imitating W.C. Fields, and calling Steve Carella “Steve-a-rino” (which by the way, that comes from the old Steve Allen tv show from the 1950’s or early 60’s. There was a recurring character played by Louis Nye, who always greeted Allen with “Hi ho, Steve-a-rino!”). His stench practically wafts off the page.

    It was an interesting choice by McBain to spin out Eileen’s story into the third of the three threads in this book. I mean, the way things were left at the very end of Tricks, I pretty much assumed that was the last we’d see of Eileen. Instead, we got this fascinating character portrait. However, it did cause the book to end on a real down note.

    Now to what I thought were the flaws.

    First, the title. I’m having a hard time understanding its meaning. I can see how “lullaby” could connect to the infant but I don’t think there was anything explicitly said in that regard. There also was mention of how a character’s baby sitter used to sing lullabies to him when he was little. Oh, and when the Jamaican gang leader ordered the hit on another character, he said “Sing him his lullaby.” But that’s it. Overall, I don’t see the reason for calling the book Lullaby.

    And finally, there’s the problem of Steve and Meyer getting shot at the end of the previous book. That was no tv-western, oh-it’s-just-a-flesh-wound shooting. Meyer took two bullets for heaven’s sake, and Steve, floating in and out of a coma, could have died or been paralyzed. Yet in this book, the only reference to that incident is the conversation you mentioned between Steve and Danny Gimp. And Meyer’s shooting seems to have been entirely forgotten! That entire shooting incident was badly handled, in my opinion.

    Still, all in all I liked Lullaby, especially because of the straightforward Dragnet-style gumshoe work in the double homicide story. In general, I have been enjoying these 80’s era novels.

    • Thanks for pointing out the Steve Allen reference as I didn’t know that at all. Interesting about “Get Off Your Ass And Knock On Doors.” as I just saw it used in a 1982 Matt Scudder book, EIGHT MILLION WAYS TO DIE – I wonder if it was a real police saying? And yeah, it is odd what McBain would choose to dwell on and what he would choose to ignore in terms of continuity between books. I guess it was just a question of what he needed on a book-by-book basis. I don’t think he planned very far ahead!

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