NOCTURNE (1997) by Ed McBain

mcbain_nocturne_pbCotton Hawes finally comes (slightly) out of the background for the 47th book in the 87th Precinct series, which as the title suggests all takes place in the course of a couple of nights (around the 21st of January) and which, as a result, wastes no time at all in setting him off with Steve Carella to investigate the murder of a once famous concert pianist who has ended up on skid row and who turns out to have a strange personal history. In tandem, Fat Ollie Weeks of the 88th Precinct investigates three murders, the various cases ultimately intersecting a little bit …

I offer the following review for Patti’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme, hosted today by Todd Mason at his Sweet Freedom.

Nocturne (87th Precinct series #47)
First Published: 1997
Leading players:  Steve Carella, Cotton Hawes, Fat Ollie Weeks, Monaghan & Monroe, Andy Parker, Bert Kling, Sam Grossman, Danny Gimp, Nellie Brand

“Why do you suppose he shot the cat?” Monroe said.
“Maybe the cat was barking,” Monoghan suggested.
“They got books with cats in them solving murders,” Monroe said.

Along with Hawes (who we discover is still seeing Annie Rawles), this book also features the return of long absent informer Danny Gimp and lab supremo Sam Grossman. We also get a rather amusing addition in the shape of Flanagan and Flaherty, the alliterative Homicide duo who serve the 88th who are maybe slightly more helpful than Monaghan and Monroe, who usually turn up at the murder scenes in the 87th. There is also an extended in-joke about the 1963 Hitchcock movie The Birds, which McBain wrote (as Evan Hunter) when the investigation turns up a suspect who loved his rooster more than life itself. And various people try to remember the title of a Francis Coppola musical that everyone forgets but which I love (it’s One from the Heart, and you should rent it right now). And McBain’s endless irritation with the beurocracy of the phone company also gets several pages devoted to it, for an unrelated plot segment devoted to noise abatement that ends in frustration and murder. There aren’t a lot of laughs or amusing comedy ‘bits’ in this book, so I thought I should point them out in advance …

“You see The Birds?” he asked. That movie Alfred Hitchcock wrote?”
Carella didn’t think Hitchcock had written it.

mcbain-nocturne-2Every now and then in the later years of this series, McBain would spice up his books with some rather extreme sex. Calypso (1979) is an example of where I thought he sort of got away with it, while Vespers (1990) is an example where I thought he failed miserably. I’m afraid that for me, Nocturne falls into the latter camp. Not only are all the characters venal and the milieu relentlessly sordid and depressing, but at the centre of the book there is a really extended and basically pornographic sequence involving group sex, torture and murder that I found completely unacceptable. I won’t go into details but it lasts for four pages and could have easily been removed without it making any difference to the story at all. It’s not that you couldn’t make a point about the way people can behave in a dehumanising way in such a fashion, but that because McBain focuses far too much on the sexual aspect for cheap effect  any point is lost in the exploitative detail. It belongs to the second story, investigated by Fat Ollie Weeks, in which three white college boys (all named Richard) hire a black prostitute and eventually murder her and dispose of the body and then murder her pimp and her drug dealer too, both of whom are also black. McBain was clearly very sincere in wanting to put race politics front and centre (there are many, many references to the OJ Simpson trial) as he had in the two preceding volumes in this series, but any noble intent is lost, for this reader, in the exploitative way in which it is handled.

“Look who’s here,” Monaghan said, without looking up at them.

The Carella and Hawes story is rather sad, with a once famous pianist felled by arthritis who is now a drunk and living in very reduced circumstances, found murdered, with her cat also shot in the head! We spend quite a lot of time with her granddaughter, who cares nothing for the old woman except that she thought she might inherit some money. Because of the coarsening of McBain’s approach in this book, a potentially interesting theme (which I will dodge as describing it is a major spoiler relating to the motive for the killing) is passed over when in fact it could have been handled very well by the author on a good day. But this isn’t one of them and a lot of potential gets squandered here in a long, unedifying and very disappointing book in the series.

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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27 Responses to NOCTURNE (1997) by Ed McBain

  1. realthog says:

    As always, I . . .

  2. tracybham says:

    The closer you get to the end, the less you seem to like the books. Are all of the later ones lower quality?

    • They are in my opinion a lot more variable – some work extremely well such as GHOSTS and POISON. The next one is, LAST GREAT HOPE, I really like, reads like late Elmore Leonard

  3. Colin says:

    Hmm, I’m not a fan of those exploitation elements you mention there either. There are times when such ingredients can be integrated into a story but it sounds like that’s not the case here, sadly.
    I have some McBain awaiting my attention shortly, as it happens. Just now I’m reading Cop Out, the later Ellery Queen book (so far, so good with it) and then plan to move on to Learning to Kill, a collection of early McBain short stories.

  4. Margot Kinberg says:

    As always, Sergio, I appreciate your candor. It’s true that McBain didn’t hit the mark – or even come close – with some of his books. Sometimes, even the return of characters and some ‘inside jokes’ don’t quite do it…

  5. I tend to agree – in fact towards the end I stopped reading the books (although my OH did finish them all) because I felt he’d moved so far away from the way he wrote initially, and I really didn’t like the extremer elements of them. Shame.

    • Thanks Karen – there are others that I much prefer. But I do now want to finish reviewing them all, though I knew that taking a chronological approach would be a pain from the point of view!

  6. Todd Mason says:

    The fates aligned their efforts to hand you a very bad 87th for a week I would be collating…and it’s not as if the examples of Lawrence Sanders or Harold Robbins going bruised blue weren’t from a decade or two earlier…do wonder if the sales were flagging and Hunter was casting about for a hook to get someone excited.

    • Thanks for that, updating the link to your site – thanks for doing the hosting honour again Todd. Well, the later McBains (even for fans) are always a bit like pot luck! Then again, John Grant thought it was a good book that made a solid point, so what do I know …

  7. No, no, no, no cat shot in the head for me, Sergio. 🙂

  8. There were a few weak entries in the 87th Precinct series towards the end. Obviously NOCTURNE was one of them.

  9. Matt Paust says:

    Thanks for the warning, Sergio, and the plug for One For the Heart, which I had not known of.

  10. Pingback: THE LAST BEST HOPE (1998) by Ed McBain | Tipping My Fedora

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

  12. justjack says:

    The prostitute’s death was nasty and sordid, and I agree that we could have done without it. Still, I didn’t hate this one. On the other hand, I didn’t like it either. As you noted, there were an awful lot of extremely unlikable characters taking up far too much of our time. And the padding wasn’t even readable; seriously, McBain? Page after page of excerpts from the criminal code?

    It was indeed nice to see Danny Gimp and Sam Grossman show up again after a long time away. In the same vein there was also an appearance by the informant Francisco Palacios, who I can’t remember the last time we heard from him. As a matter of fact, for a series that’s called The 87th Precinct, it seems like we sure haven’t seen much of the squad-room in the last few books. There’s Steve and whoever he’s partnered up with, and that’s about it. Now that I think of it, lately we really only get to see the rest of the guys in “snowballing sessions” in Lt. Byrnes’s office.

    And now I *know* I didn’t like this book, because now I’m starting to nitpick. Like that phrase “snowballing session.” Shouldn’t it be “spitballing?” And then there’s the business of the suspect with the supposedly unpronounceable name–I don’t think that’s right at all. Unspellable, sure. But once you hear someone *say* his name (McBain writes it out phonetically for us), it’s pretty easy to pronounce it correctly. No wonder Carella got tired of people not saying the suspect’s name. It’s sort of the opposite of the old running joke on Barney Miller, where a frustrated Detective Wojciehowicz would tell people, “you spell it just the way it sounds!”

    Finally, there was the passage where Steve and Cotton are tracking down a potential witness. It’s 4 in the morning, there’s a near full moon, it’s January and it’s well below freezing. And McBain stops to note how the sky was full of stars. Stars? Who can see stars in an urban sky? With a full moon lighting up the sky, and reflecting earthshine coming off all that fresh white snow to add to the light pollution?

    Well, you can see what I mean–if I’d’ve liked this book a bit more, I’d give a pass to that sort of thing.

    Two positive things of note: first, it’s nice to see Fat Ollie become a smart detective again. And second, it was fun to see Andy Parker make a positive contribution to the snowballing session for the third time in the last four books. Wouldn’t it be hilarious if it turns out that dating the Puerto Rican woman turns him into a less horrible person?

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