THE BIG BAD CITY (1999) by Ed McBain

mcbain_big-bad-cityThe murder of a nun, a burglar who leaves cookies as a calling card and various family entanglements involving Steve Carella, his sister and the man who murdered their father, are just some of the elements to be found in the last 87th Precinct novel from the 20th century. And a very good one it is too!

“I thought it was … forgive me, I thought it was a bundle of clothes or something. Then I realised it was a woman”

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

The Big Bad City (87th Precinct series #49)
First Published: 1999
Leading players:  Steve Carella, Arthur Brown, Meyer Meyer, Bert Kling, Andy Parker, Fat Ollie Weeks, Lieutenant Byrnes, Monoghan & Monroe, Hal Willis, Dave Murchison, Teddy Carella, Nellie Brand, Matthew Hope

“Are you sure she’s a nun?”
“Why? Carella asked. “What else did you find?”
“Breast implants,” Blaney said.

It is late August, ER is the hot show on TV, and everyone has email,  but the passage of time is deceptive for the 87th – for one thing, the Carella twins Mark and April are now 12 years old, which is impressive given their birth was chronicled in ’till Death, a book published in the late 1950s! But then again, this makes skewed sense since their father, Steve Carella – first seen in Cop Hater, published 43 years earlier – is worrying about the fact that he is about to turn 40! But despite the typically eccentric sense of personal chronology in the series, the past weighs heavily here. Sister Mary Vincent, the murder victim found strangled in the park, seems to have been worried about money of late and requested a loan of thousands of dollars from her brother without explaining why she needed it – but who would blackmail a nun? It transpires that before her religious life she was briefly a rock singer (and had a breast augmentation as part of her new look), so the secret to the motive may lie there.

“Been nice to know you,” he said, and rolled him off the rock wall and into the water.

But the past impinges on Carella too – he is being pursued by Sonny Cole, the man who killed his father during a robbery (as detailed in Widows), a case that took a sour and unexpected turn when, due to procedural foul-ups (the trial featured in the follow-up novel, Kiss), the perpetrator ultimately walked free. But Sonny is scared that Carella will be gunning for him, so elects to get him first. And only racist slob Fat Ollie Weeks can save the day when  he spots the connection with another dead body found in the river. In the meantime, Meyer and Kling investigate a series of robberies by a miscreant known as ‘The Cookie Boy’ as he always leaves a bag of biscuits at the scene of the crime. This turns nasty when things goes wrong and two innocent people die.

Burglary was his entire life. He truly enjoyed what he did, but now he was fearful he might never derive pleasure from it again.

McBain does a great job here of juggling the multiple plotlines and even finds time for a nice cameo from Matthew Hope, the now retired lawyer from Florida (who used to have his own series of novels) who struck a friendship with Carella in his last outing, The Last Best Hope. In its mixture of old and new, McBain goes out of his way to acknowledge the past in a sweet scene towards the end of the story when Carella and Brown reminisce about many of their older cases. Among them they recall the deaths of Hernandez in See Them Die (1960) and Roger Havilland in Killer’s Choice (1957); the kidnapping of the wrong boy in King’s Ransom (1959); the precinct siege in Killer’s Wedge (1959); the death of Bert Kling’s beloved Claire Townsend in Lady, Lady I Did It (1961); and the crazy bank robbery at the heart of Let’s Hear It for the Deaf Man (1973). Just as McBain was prepping the 50th book in the series, it seemed he was looking at old glories and perhaps planning an exit. Would The Last Dance (2000) in fact prove to be the last in the series? We shall see, very shortly …

You can check out my reviews of the 48 previous volumes at my 87 Precinct microsite.

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

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

28 Responses to THE BIG BAD CITY (1999) by Ed McBain

  1. Colin says:

    Always a pleasure to see you return to McBain and it’s also nice to learn that this is a strong series entry, even at this relatively late stage. As you know, I’m a fair bit behind but I do enjoy hearing about your positive and negative experiences as you’ve been going along.
    I see Matthew Hope is in this one, which reminds me that I read Goldilocks earlier in the year.

    • Thanks chum. I’ll be ratcheting up the McBain over the next few weeks as we get near to the end of the series. And what did you make of the Hope book actually? Not read it myself.

      • Colin says:

        I thought it was OK, short and not overly complex. I’ve read another Hope novel, Puss in Boots, before and this one was not quite as violent or graphic as that. From my relatively slight exposure to both series, I’d sat the Hope books are more concerned with relationship issues, and sex of course, than I’ve seen in the 87th books.

  2. realthog says:

    Hm, I don’t think I’ve read this one. I’d best rectify that omission . . . Thanks for the great writeup!

  3. Margot Kinberg says:

    Somehow, the passage-of-time thing doesn’t seem to be a problem in this series, Sergio – at least not for me. Admittedly, if you think it out it’s not logical. Still, the story is what always matters in this series, and I don’t think the story is lessened, if that makes sense. Glad you enjoyed this.

    • Thanks Margot – the roughly 4:1 ratio in terms of character ages to the actual passage of time is I think one of the most appealing eccentricities about the whole series.

  4. tracybham says:

    Interesting, I did not realize that Matthew Hope showed up in any of the 87th Precinct mysteries. Not that I have read any of the Matthew Hope mysteries. You are getting really close to the end of the series.

  5. realthog says:

    Oh, duh. I can be so slow on the uptake sometimes! I’ve just realized that, given the novel’s title, of course you’d expect Matthew Hope to turn up . . .

  6. Steve says:

    I have really enjoyed your 87th precinct reviews Sergio. I have read the majority of them but I don’t think I have read this one. It sounds like one of the better later entries in the series.

  7. Paula Carr says:

    I used to work as a page and librarian’s assistant when I was in high school and university, so I can remember what seemed to be shelves and shelves and SHELVES of Ed McBain books. I never read any though. Something to be rectified, I think.

  8. Paula’s library story reminded me of the days when I would find shelves of Ed McBain books in used bookstores. McBain was a prolific and popular writer. Today, I rarely find a McBain book in the few used bookstores that remain.

    • Yes, I remember that too – i habe paperbacks of his that I bought in shops London, Singapore and San Francisco – but the last half dozen of the series were all purchased online.

  9. Matt Paust says:

    I’m so far behind in my 87ths it’s a crime! I just might bump the line and read this one next. Thanks, Sergio!

  10. justjack says:

    What a relief to wholeheartedly like an 87th Precinct story again! Very straightforward in the telling, very much focused on police procedure. Not a heavy read, and yet by the end I felt very satisfied with it. I too was touched by the reminiscence scene in the final act.

    For a minute there, it looked like Andy Parker was going to continue his recent arc of growing into a competent, possibly even likable, character (the scene where he tries to tell a nun joke, and the other detectives needle him about it, and his perfectly reasonable response, all had me laughing). But then Andy drops the ball at an extremely important moment. Back to square one!

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