Cotton 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.
Every 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.