FAT OLLIE’S BOOK (2002) by Ed McBain

Ed McBain decided that ultra-bigot Detective/First Grade Oliver Wendell Weeks – known colloquially (if not to his face) as ‘Fat Ollie’ – somehow merited having his own 87th Precinct mystery, even though he’s from the 88th! But what about Roger Havilland and Andy Parker, the two equally un-PC cops actually from the 87th? They never got a volume dedicated to them. But life is never fair .. Carella actually does most of the work tracking down the murderer of a candidate for mayor; Ollie instead tries to find the miscreant who lifted the manuscript of his debut novel!

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

Nocturne (87th Precinct series #52)
First Published: 2002
Leading players:  Fat Ollie Weeks, Steve Carella, Bert Kling, Eileen Burke, Andy Parker, Lieutenant Byrnes, Sharon Cooke, Fats Donner, Teddy Carella, Nellie Brand, Monoghan & Monroe

A pair of bookends in black – the color of death, the unofficial color of Homicide – the two jackasses were the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of law enforcement. Ollie wanted to punch them both in the mouth.

After the high-octane, large-canvas, super-topical thriller that was Money, Money, Money, the previous title in the series, McBain returns to his by now more standard approach by having three separate cases in play: the murder of a candidate for mayor who was cheating on his wife; the theft of a briefcase; and a the busting of a drugs ring. But there are some new wrinkles all the same, including the introduction of tabloid TV Journalist Honey Blair, who would be a regular for the rest of the books in the series. And the Revered Gabriel Foster is back again too. However, unavoidably, and as signalled by the punning title, first and foremost we get Fat Ollie Weeks as the main protagonist. And not just him but also his recently finished novel of which there is only one copy. This becomes fairly central to the story so we are treated to about 50 pages of extracts from Weeks’ tome!

“Throw us off the scent?” Parker said. “What is this, Sherlock Holmes?”

The murder is investigated mainly by Carella and Kling. Ollie is supposedly taking point as the politician was killed in the 88th – but as he lived in the 87th he gets Carella yanked in as his partner. This is partly because he loves working with him (Carella is about the only cop who makes an effort to tolerate his horrible behaviour). And Carella accepts for a very good reason – Ollie did in fact save his life not once but twice in their previous case together. That took place in the depth of Winter but now it is April and love is in the air – even Ollie finds a friend in the shape on a young female cop who actually recognises his WC Fields impersonation! However, despite the pressures of work and finding a woman who actually likes him, Ollie spends most of his time tracking down the person who stole the briefcase from the back of his car – the briefcase contained the only copy of his literary (cough) debut, a police procedural written from a female point of view. As I mentioned, we do get to read big chunks of Ollie’s book, and … well, it has to be said,  it’s not very good! But McBain uses it as a springboard to have lots of fun with amateur authors as well as amateur critics (there is a hilarious section devoted to those who post reviews on Amazon). Here’s a (mercifully) short example from his creative exegesis:

“You won’t have to worry about eatin too much longer,” she said, and burst out laughing, which I considered ominous. “You goan be dead by midnight,” she added, which I also took to be a bad sign. The clock was ticking

This part of the story is admittedly the weakest, not just because the long sections from the book are a bit too obvious as padding; but because to make it dovetail into another part of the plot we have to swallow that the thief, admittedly a not too bright drug addict, believes that the novel, entitled Report to the Commissioner (and no, we don’t think Weeks has heard of James Mills’ eponymous 1972 bestseller), is a real police report. And that in code it details the whereabouts of a cache of diamonds. This is done, smartly enough, it has to be said, so that it eventually overlaps with a drugs bust being handled (poorly) by Andy Parker, who has been partnered with Eileen Burke, who has now joined the squad.

As coincidence would have it, Eileen Burke walked in just then.

It’s great to have her back as she has not been seen since Mischief, almost a decade ago, though when last we saw her I thought she (and McBain) were maybe a bit unfair to Bert Kling over their dramatic broke up. But it is a pleasure to see the two straighten things out in a brief scene – and even nicer to get some quality time devoted to his love affair with Sharyn Cooke – there is a lovely four-page section devoted to just how much in love they are with each other. if it doesn’t warm your heart, then you are made of much, much sterner stuff than I.

This is an intrinsically lightweight book – the investigation into the murder ultimately proves fairly easy to crack and Ollie’s book is amusingly awful (if admittedly over-exposed purely to keep the page count up) – but the character stuff is great and on the whole I had a very good time with this late entry in the series.

You can check out my reviews of all the volumes in this series at my 87 Precinct microsite.

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

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31 Responses to FAT OLLIE’S BOOK (2002) by Ed McBain

  1. Colin says:

    I remember you saying that you were feeling some trepidation about facing the later entries in the series, fearing that they would stack up poorly against the earlier material. Therefore, it’s good to see you taking positive things away from these books.

    • Well, the worst is over – there are a few of the later ones that I really don’t like but glad to say this is not one of them 😀

      • Colin says:

        Even among the later titles,, going purely by impression and not having searched back through all the pieces just now, I think it’s fair to say you still had more positive reactions than negative. Which I find encouraging.

        • I hope I haven’t been sounding too negative – there are some of the later ones, like Vespers and Nocturne, that I thought stumbled very badly – but nothing that dented my overall enthusiasm for the series.

          • Colin says:

            Not at all, with a few notable exceptions like those, the series generally feels like it’s earned a big thumbs up from you all the way through.

          • In August I will post my last review of the series and will also post a summary of the ones I liked the best, and some of the ones I liked the least. Without wanting to spoil my own forthcoming post, let’s say that the vast majority of the favourites came from those published during the series’ first 20 years and the may least favourites mainly came from those published afterwards. But I suspect this is probably true of any really long-running series (maybe with the exception of the Nameless series by Bill Pronzini), though having said that, there are very few that actually lasted 50 years. Off the top of my head: Pronzini’s Nameless has been at it for exactly 50 years (but only if we include short stories); Ngaio March wrote about Roderick Alleyn for 48 years; Agatha Christie wrote Poirot books for just over 50 years; while Gladys Mitchell did publish Mrs Bradley mysteries for 55 years while Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Erle Stanley Gardner and Rex Stout respectively wrote about Sherlock Holmes, Perry Mason and Nero Wolfe, for some 40 years. Did I miss anyone?

          • Curses – I should include Maigret (just over 40 years), and Ellery Queen if we ignore Manfred Lee taking a sabbatical in the 1960s, and Catherine Aird has been writing Inspector Sloan books for 50 years too actually!

  2. I’m glad you found some good things to enjoy in this one, Sergio. No doubt about it, Fat Ollie is an interesting character, even if he is in the 88th, and even if he’s not exactly a stellar author… And it is interesting that McBain decided to give him is own book.

  3. realthog says:

    Again I’d give this one more than 3 tips out of 5 — from me this’d get at least a 4.5 and I think that, even though I don’t think it’s the best in the series, it’s the one I’d take to the proverbial desert island if one from the series was all I was allowed. It’s probably my years spent in book publishing that made me love the novel so much. I roared with laughter often.

    Perhaps for the same reason, I got the feeling that McBain wrote Fat Ollie’s literary tour-de-force* first, as a jeu d’esprit, then created an 87th Precinct novel to go around it.

    [ * Best definition I’ve ever seen of this term was by the publisher Anthony Blond: “tour-de-force” = “short”.]

    • You have a lot less trouble with all the paddling than I did! I much prefer the earlier, shorter books. Now that I have finished re-reading them all I can say that hand on heart. The style is different and agrees with me less – there are only a few of the series that I genuinely think do not work.

  4. I enjoyed FAT OLLIE’S BOOK, too. I’m surprised that McBain turned a repellent cop into a sympathetic (and effective) character.

    • One could question why bother since it does not in any way excuse the character’s past bad behaviour – and yet the message is essentially a positive. And we all want to believe that love can make the world a better place – I certainly do 🙂

  5. Matt Paust says:

    Fun review. I actually liked **cough** that excerpt from Ollie’s manuscript. Maybe that’s why I can’t sell my manuscripts…

  6. tracybham says:

    I have still only read the first four books, but your reviews keep me motivated to read more. (And the comments from others.)

  7. Jerry says:

    About Roger Havilland and Andy Parker never being in the spotlight: It’s been a long time but I seem to remember Parker being a lead in SEE THEM DIE. Started out being Parker and Hernandez, then Hernandez got himself killed, which left Parker and the killer in the gunfight at the O.K. scene.

    • Havilland obviously never got the chance given his early exit; By being centre-stage I don’t just mean emphasis but also point of view. I know what you mean about See Them Die (a real favourite of mine, incidentally), but to me that was really about Hernandez. I actually think Parker really ever got one real bit of limelight in a way that truly humanised him, and that was in his scenes from Tricks.

  8. I wish I had Tracy’s desire to read these books, Sergio. I like your enthusiasm of course and your devotion. Well, I did download one of the books a while back – but I’ve still to read it. At any rate, I haven’t completely shut the door. 🙂

  9. Hi Sergio! I wasn’t aware of an 88th Precinct or the crossover of detectives between precincts. With its literary element, in the form of Fat Ollie’s manuscript, this does sound like good fun.

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