VESPERS (1990) by Ed McBain

McBain_Vespers_mandarinA priest is murdered n his own church and Carella and Hawes get tangled in a case involving drugs, blackmail, street gangs and, bizarrely, Satanism. At the same time, Hal Willis’ relationship with love-of-his-life Marilyn Hollis comes under strain when her past indiscretions (as detailed in an earlier volume, Poison), including prostitution, drug smuggling, murder and the theft of 2 million dollars, come back to haunt them.

I submit this review for Friday’s Forgotten Books meme, hosted today over at Sweet Freedom by Todd Mason, a very good guy who hates McBain. Normally I’d disagree, but on this occasion …

Lullaby (87th Precinct series #42)
First Published: 1990
Leading players: Hal Willis, Steve Carella, Cotton Hawes, Meyer Meyer, Andy Parker, Teddy Carella

“Even the hottest of cases got cold after a few days without a lead. This case had been cold from the beginning.”

Confession time: this is the book that for a while turned me against the 87th Precinct series. I started reading the books in my teens and tried for the most part to keep them in chronological order, though in those pre-internet days (we are talking about the mid 1980s now) this wasn’t always easy and I jumped around a lot as a result. In the early 90s, probably while staying in San Francisco as I did a lot at the time,  I caught up with this one, and it did stop me in my tracks. It is far too long for its plot, all of its scenes dragged out by just having people lie and then having the truth take forever to be uncovered, most noticeably in a subplot about a man who beats his wife). Also much of the dialogue, which before in the series would have appeared with a minimum and embroidery, instead appears as reported speech, with continuous authorial interjections, some of which are amusing, but which mainly serve to pad out the length. The result is mostly tedium.

And the assemblage rose to its feet and shouted tumultuously and victoriously, “All hail Satan, all hail Satan!”

McBain_Vespers_hbBut that is not what really bothered me – no, what really got me was the near pornographic handling of the scenes depicting black masses. This turns out to be a complete red herring anyway, but there is something really unpleasant in McBain’s decision to try and beat Harold Robbins to his own game. And the fact that pre-teen children are involved in the orgiastic descriptions is more than I was prepared to cope with. It has been rumoured for literally decades that Evan Hunter (originally Salvatore Lombino and aka ‘Ed McBain’) did write a lot of sex books as ‘Dean Hudson‘ – a byline that appeared on nearly 100 books in the 1960s – and Lawrence Block, who also wrote books in the genre at the time, has said that Hunter certainly had ‘issues’ when it came to sex. I am not even remotely prudish, but I think the author here completely misjudges what is appropriate for the kind of story he is telling, simply giving in to an easy impulse as a way to exploit the book. The plot is never actually forgotten, the but part of the story dealing with Satanism is clearly there just for titillation and serves no other useful purpose (always assuming that you can call that a ‘useful purpose’).

“Sometimes time seemed elastic to him, a concept that could be bent at will, twisted to fit ever-changing needs. Who was to say the twins were not thirty years old, rather than eleven?”

There are good things here, including another sly acknowledgement  (quoted above) of how the series was ignoring real-life chronology as the decades passed, all the series characters seemingly preserved in aspic, while the basic plots are in fact as sound as ever. Indeed, at 150 pages, with the sex and verbiage excised, this would have made for a very decent entry in the series (hence the slightly indulgent rating I have given it below), though the solution to the murder does come completely out of nowhere. But at over 300 pages it feels bloated and over sexed, burying the tragic finale under an unwieldy morass. Twenty years hence, Vespers still doesn’t work for this reader.

So, roll on the next (and certainly much more satisfying) book in the series, Widows (number 43) – until I get round to that one, you can check out my reviews of all the previous volumes at my 87 Precinct microsite.

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

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32 Responses to VESPERS (1990) by Ed McBain

  1. Yes, even Hunter/McBain wrote some -er – less than stellar books, Sergio. And I agree with you about the whole black mass thing. This is one you don’t really need to read to enjoy the series…

  2. realthog says:

    I vaguely recall enjoying this one more than you clearly have, Sergio. If I get the urge I’ll dig out my copy (assuming I still have it) and give the book another go. I don’t recall the orgies ‘n’ stuff, so either I’m misremembering or I’m thinking of one of the other series entries!

  3. tracybham says:

    I skimmed because I don’t want to know too much going in, although we all know by the time I get to this one I will have forgotten. (Really I just don’t want to know what happens to some of the characters in the later books.) .. but… it sounds like you did not care for this one. Looking forward to more reviews of this series.

  4. Colin says:

    It will be a while before I get this far into the series but this sounds badly focused and a bit tasteless in places.

    • Yeah, it is just that the elements for me don’t gel properly – but it is also true that Hunter/McBain’s attitude to sex has always been on the exploitative side so it was bound to happen sooner or later that he went a bit too far …

  5. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Like you, I felt some of his latter books weren’t up to it, and the sex stuff added nothing (and I’m no prude either). Mind you, his Candyland is quite racy…

  6. Simon says:

    I don’t agree with some of these comments. I know it’s a cliche but to me, even the worst McBain is better than some others best. And not every crime can or should be a neat little “poisoned sherry glass” or “letter opener in the back” a la Agatha Christie. There are some very nasty violent unpleasant things out there that the police do investigate, so why shouldn’t McBain write about them? That it makes people uncomfortable is surely not a bad thing? No one reads crime/ thrillers for happy feelings?

    • Hi Simon – I agree with your sentiments completely – I am a big McBain fan and prefer my entertainments edgy. But to me, and I can only speak for myself, the sex element was gratuitous and too much like porn

  7. vicky blake says:

    One of the things I like best about McBain are his descriptions of the city but a lot of his descriptions of women etc always seemed fairly stone age . I read him for the stuff I like and roll my eyes at the rest!

    • Thanks for that Vicky and I agree completely in this – this is one of the few books of his (or from this series, anyway), where I found it hard to do. In POISON we get a whole ‘women in prison;’ subplot that feels a lot like a Pam Grier movie but none the less works well on it sown terms. But not in VESPERS, at least not for me.

  8. The later 87th Precinct novels grew larger and less fun to read. My favorite Ed McBain novels were published in the late 1970s and early 1980s when he really hit his stride.

  9. As a result of your review, I think it most unlikely that I will ever read this – but it was a most interesting review anyway: most of the details about McBain new to me.

  10. Sergio, I did not know McBain had written sex books as Dean Hudson. Perhaps, he wanted to see if that sort of thing might click in his 87th Precinct. I have not one, but two copies of this book, neither of the two above. Now I will know what to expect.

  11. Matt Paust says:

    Thanks for the warning, Sergio!

  12. Pingback: WIDOWS (1991) by Ed McBain | Tipping My Fedora

  13. Pingback: NOCTURNE (1997) by Ed McBain | Tipping My Fedora

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