ROMANCE (1995) by Ed McBain

McBain_ROMANCE_hbThere was a two-year break following the publication of Mischief (1993), but McBain picks up directly from the end of the previous volume – indeed, the first 5 pages of this new novel are taken from the end of the previous one. We also find the author in a very playful mood as we switch to a scene set in Manhattan and featuring the NYPD – has McBain forgotten to substitute Isola? No, it turns out we are watching a play in rehearsal, though I have no idea where New York lies in the fictional McBain universe – probably on the East Coast,  shall we just leave it at that?

I offer the following review for Friday’s Forgotten Booksmeme run by Patti Abbott at her fab Pattinase blog

Romance (87th Precinct series #46)
First Published: 1995
Leading players:  Steve Carella, Bert Kling, Fat Ollie Weeks, Nellie Brand, Peter Byrnes, Arthur Brown, Andy Parker, Teddy Carella, Monaghan & Monroe, Sharyn Cooke

“… there ain’t no way you can turn a murder mystery into a silk purse”

McBain never actually wrote a book in this series entitled Lark, but he is most definitely having a very good time here and works fairly hard to try and bring readers along with him, even those perhaps not too well-disposed towards self-conscious, self-reflexive narratives that play on the verge of postmodernism to explore just how much truth you can convey in a fictional work. So, deep breath: the book is named for the title of a new play, Romance, that is currently in rehearsal. The play is about a play entitled, you guessed it, Romance, which deals with actors performing a play … about an actress who gets threatened by an unknown stalker and who is eventually killed. This being a very serious play, none of the characters have names, just roles (the actress, the understudy, the director, the cop, etc) and we don’t find out whodunit. Then life starts to imitate art when the lead actress in the play is first attacked and then murdered exactly mirroring the play, which gains it enormous publicity. Could it be that one of the actors, the pretentious and sententious author, or the cold-blooded director committed the heinous act just to make the play a hit? The actress’ agent is arrested, but then another man kills himself and leaves a confession to the crime. But does that solve things? Of course not …

Then the actors start re-writing the play to better reflect the true-life investigation. Even Fat Ollie Weeks, the bigoted slob of the 88th, gets asked for artistic advice from a thespian and Bert Kling gets told he behaves just like the fictional counterparts of the small screen:

“Oh, my, but we do sound like a television cop, don’t we?”

mcbain-romance-2Speaking of Kling … Very unusually for McBain in this era, only one crime investigation is featured in this volume, though to compensate we do have a substantial subsidiary subplot involving Bert’s latest (and, let’s face it, doubtless doomed) love affair, once again (after Eileen Burke, who merits only a fleeting mention from Teddy) with a fellow cop – or rather a high-ranking medic who works for the police and who pulls in a lot more cash than our hardworking detective, so right away there may be room for some bumps along the way. This however proves not to be much of a stumbling block, but their romance is anything but easy as she is black and Kling is white and the city is still reeling from the race riot initiated the previous weekend by The Deaf Man in the previous novel, of which this is almost a continuation (it all takes place in the subsequent week). Actually, despite being a sort of sequel, its combination of a story with a theatrical background and a budding romance for Kling recalls an earlier book in the series, Ten Plus One from 1963. The plot in this one is much less convoluted, though not necessarily any more convincing when it comes to a plausible motive, but there is much to enjoy.

Along with the crisp and funny dialogue, there are also plenty of meta-textual moments (for those like me who enjoy that sort of thing) as well as several pop culture in-jokes – at one point we learn that the actor playing the cop in the play has also played similar roles in such movies as Without Apparent Motive (1971), Fuzz (1972), and Blood Relatives (1978), all of which are real films that just happen to be adapted from previous books in the 87th Precinct series. But then this story is set in April, so a certain jokeyness is to be expected, though McBain is in deadly earnest when he explores the racial tensions in his fictional city so closely modeled on New York. Very much a book aimed squarely at fans of the series, it earns half marks for keeping nicely to a single plot, it general good humour and the handling a serious topic in its love story. It loses marks as the plot is not very plausible and offers mostly very thin characterisation. But I did enjoy the lightness of touch here, especially compared with the next book in the series, the incredibly dark and sordid Nocturne … (review coming soon).

You can check out my reviews of all the previous volumes at my 87 Precinct microsite.

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

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

22 Responses to ROMANCE (1995) by Ed McBain

  1. realthog says:

    Another one that I recall loving . . .

  2. Colin says:

    Still well down the road for me and nice to hear about the lighter tone even if the book lacks a little something overall.

  3. Margot Kinberg says:

    Ah, plausibility is one of my bugaboos, too, Sergio. Still, it does sound like fun. And somehow, I find myself forgiving McBain for things I would never tolerate in other writers. Thanks, as ever, for your thoughtful and insightful review.

  4. The later books in the 87th Precinct series are uneven in quality. Sometimes it seemed like McBain just followed the template he developed over 40+ books. And the late books in the series are a lot longer…not better.

    • Hard not to agree George – there are some of the later books that I thought worked very well. This one is OK, the next (Nocturne) I thought pretty much a complete failure sadly …

      • realthog says:

        Ha! I went to Goodreads to remind myself which one Nocturne was and saw the quote at the opening of the blurb:

        “Just in case anybody thought the 47 earlier novels in the 87th precinct were a fluke, McBain’s gone and revitalized the routine with “Nocturne””. — The New York Times Book Review

        And, yes, I recall enjoying this one too . . .

        • Well, what can I say, the totally gratuitous and exploitative murder / gang bang / murder sequence really upset me and turned me completely off the book. Horses for courses …

          • realthog says:

            Yep. I do remember that being pretty grueling. But I don’t think it was gratuitous. I think it was McBain reminding us that, for all the wisecracking and the games in the 87th novels, we’re having fun on the basis of things that in real life are genuinely horrific.

            Anyway — hold the discussion until your review appears, and then I’ll probably discover I’m wrong . . .

          • I have a nagging suspicion we may not see eye to eye on this one – we shall see 😉 Thanks chum.

  5. tracybham says:

    Before I worked at my current job, I worked for a publishing company for 29 years. A friend who worked there all those years with me was a big Ed McBain fan. I read mysteries then (Elizabeth George, P.D. James, Rex Stout of course). She kept trying to get me to read McBain’s books. For some reason I thought his books were much more hard-boiled than the others I read. If I had just listened to her then I would be much further ahead in the series now. Ah well, I will read more McBain in 2017.

    • It’s interesting about that? He can be tough but int he 87th precinct series, the focus is usually on plot ingenuity and character. In fact, when the style does get tougher from the 80s onward, it works slightly less well because he still want to tell a good tale and not overload you with sensation. Having said that, I’ll be pretty much reversing what I just said in my review of Nocturne, the next in the series s- review up in a few weeks …

  6. Matt Paust says:

    Sounds too complicated for me, Sergio. I have ADD and have a tough enough time following straight narratives. I did enjoy the two or three McBain novels I’ve read, but they were more conventional, I guess (knowing the term “postmodern” but incapable of explaining it. Insightful review, and enjoyable despite my lack of enthusiasm for this particular book.

  7. Sergio, I didn’t know McBain injected humour in his 87th Precinct mysteries. This does sound like a good fun read in spite of the low score. I’m guessing that’s also because you are weighing this title against his more conventional novels with solid and “plausible” plots.

    • There is lot of humour in the 87th, in many ways it is one of the defining characteristics of his style – here though he really turned it up a notch, so probably not for everyone.

  8. justjack says:

    I didn’t notice the two year break between Romance and Mischief! And then this book picks up *immediately* where the previous one left off. Neat!

    There’s an air of deliberate unreality here; not just the play within a play within a book, but in McBain’s approach to the race issue here. The whole book is set up like the club Art Brown recommends to Bert for his first date with Sharyn: the band has equal numbers of white and black people in it, and every couple in the joint is mixed. When Steve and Bert investigate one of the murders, they are met by a team of black detectives from a nearby precinct. And the near-riot at the end of the book seems also to have equal numbers of black and white people. Another way that McBain stresses the unreality, I think, is in the way that the first half of the book seems as restricted in scope as the play, with its no-named characters and no set props. For the first 150 or so pages, the only 87th precinct cops we see are Bert and Steve (Cotton and Meyer walk into the squadron but are immediately hustled out the door on a squeal before paragraph’s end). And as you noted in your review, there’s only the one crime to be dealt with in the book’s first half. As stripped down and bare bones as the *play* “Romance” is, the *book* “Romance” is barely spacious enough to contain it!

    Things open up wide in the second half, though. I agree that the plot is not very believable. But perhaps an argument can be made that this is a deliberate choice by McBain, that it is yet another example of the purposeful unreality of the entire book.

    Things I noted and went “hmm:”
    • there’s a mention of Roger Havilland.
    • Fat Ollie, who is a horrible person but a good detective, is surprisingly eager to close the case, despite Steve disagreeing. I think Fat Ollie imagines that he has some kind of special bond with Steve, and it just caught me by surprise that he wouldn’t want to consider Steve’s argument.
    • Bert seems to be directing the initial investigation, despite being partnered with Steve. Wouldn’t Steve, as the senior detective, take the lead?

    • There’s a character in the play called the Understudy, but she’s not the actual understudy.
    • Andy Parker chastising the other detectives for their sexist language.
    • Andy again (as in “Kiss”) coming up with the breakthrough insight.
    • DA Nellie Brand referring to the best detective in the department, and Fat Ollie is shocked that she didn’t mean *him*.
    • When McBain lists that actor’s movie credits and they’re all based on McBain stories–including “High And Low!” McBain’s lack of caring how such a thing could happen (“albeit in Asian disguise”) made me giggle.

    Overall, I very much agree with you that this was one for the fans. I liked it.

    • I think your review of the book is a lot better than mine Jack – thanks very much for that. I have no idea if I will ever go back to these but so good to remember all their special qualities. Been rewatching the early seasons of Law and Order which I love, and the debt is huge.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s