THE FRUMIOUS BANDERSNATCH (2003) by Ed McBain

Cultural appropriation is the theme and the music biz the scene for this unusual entry in the 87th Precinct series. ‘Bandersnatch’ is the name of a new album, taken of course from Lewis Carroll, and initially there is more than a touch of the absurd about this tale of a kidnapped singer, and not just because bigot supreme Fat Ollie Weeks seems to have found himself a girlfriend. But we also see the return of the under-used Cotton Hawes (about time) for a book with a somewhat post-modern literary feel that while occasionally playful in its allusions ends very bleakly indeed.

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

The Frumious Bandersnatch (87th Precinct series #53)
First Published: 2003
Leading players:  Steve Carella, Cotton Hawes. Bert Kling, Meyer Meyer, Andy Parker, Fat Ollie Weeks, Hal Willis, Lieutenant Byrnes, Sharyn Cooke, Nellie Brand, Teddy Carella

“We’re dealing with professionals here,” he said. “Or else, guys who’ve seen a lot of movies.”

Picking up just a few days after the end of Fat Ollie’s Book, it is now May and continuing the thread from that volume, Fat Ollie takes officer Patricia Gomez out on a date and is a stunning success. He is still talking about the novel he wrote and speaks of James Patterson as a literary god, though by the end, after being exposed to a little Shakespeare, even Ollie realises that having a ticking clock is not the only way to tell a story. Which doesn’t stop McBain having  a lot of fun with the idea however. Indeed, this is a book that has quite a bit of fun with literature and literary criticism and conventions in general – the Carroll nonsense verse (which you can read in all sorts of places, including: www.jabberwocky.com) is variously re-interpreted as being about rape or race, and this is explored throughout the story in various subtle and not so subtle ways.

“Frumious, huh?”Jefferson said. “Still sounds pornographic to me.”

Carella and Hawes are called in when 20-year-old pop singer Tamar Valparaiso is kidnapped from the yacht where she has premiered Bandersnatch, the title song from her eponymous debut album in which she is seen menaced by a monstrous figure representing the Jabberwocky played by a masked black dancer. Two men and a woman arrive on board also wearing masks, this time of Saddam Hussein, Yasser Arafat, and George W. Bush, knock out the dancer and kidnap the singer. Carella and Hawes are assigned, though they keep wondering where the FBI is. Eventually they do arrive, in all their grandstanding glory, and to his surprise Carella gets seconded to them. He is immediately made to feel like a spare wheel and little more than a gopher – it turns out that he was added to the task force only because the by the head of the music label wanted him there. It is Carella who gets sent out to make the ransom delivery, but this turns out to be only an installment as the kidnappers decide, after all the publicity, that they have asked for too little money (a mere $250,000, which they up too a million within hours of receipt of the ransom).

“Gabe, I think you’re barking up the wrong tree. I don’t know the girl, but I’m willing to bet my last dollar that she isn’t racist.”
“I can smell one a hundred yards away,” said Foster.

It is also worth noting that the Reverend Foster is back for his third consecutive visit to the series, as is Honey Blair, the TV reporter with a hankering for Steve Carella – but this time she transfers her attentions to Cotton Hawes (who, in between books, seems to have stopped seeing Annie Rawls – shame about that). But despite familiar elements and characters, the novel focuses on just one crime plot, which was unusual for McBain at this point in the series. As a result there is quite a lot of padding – and certainly the opening chapter, at some 60 pages, is the longest one ever in the series! We get a bit too much time devoted to describing pop routines and a bit too long with the kidnappers, who prove to be a fairly hopeless and unpleasant bunch. Indeed, while the references to Lewis Carroll are central, this novel also owes a considerable debt to that noir gangster classic of James Hadley Chase, No Orchids for Miss Blandish, In keeping with this, and the aforementioned interpretation of the Carroll verse, there is a violent and deeply shocking rape scene in the book – it lasts one paragraph, is crucial to the plot and is designed to be repellent – which it is. And leads to a very dark ending.

The plot is over-stretched but there is plenty of character material to compensate as well as a nice little twist at the end too. I wish it had been a lot shorter, but you can’t always get what you want. Another ultra professional, very solidly carpentered entry in the series – and with a concluding turn of the knife you won’t forget.

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

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

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

14 Responses to THE FRUMIOUS BANDERSNATCH (2003) by Ed McBain

  1. Glad you found a lot to like here, Sergio. I’ve always liked the way that the characters in this series are developed, so I’m glad you mentioned that. And McBain was good, in my opinion, at integrating modern/contemporary culture into the novels as different things came up. It’s hard to do that without dating a book, but he pulled it off, in my view.

  2. Gerard Saylor says:

    Fat Ollie Weeks is such an insufferable a-hole. And fantastic detective.

  3. prettysinister says:

    Good heavens! You’ve really reviewed 53 of the 87th Precinct series. Only two more left! Where will you go from there? I’ve always wondered about this one because of the Carroll allusion in the title. Not for me at al, however. Ashamed to say — with all your well done coverage and several tempting posts that led me to purchase a handful of his books — I’ve read only two Ed McBain mystery novels. TWO! I guess he’s just not obscure enough for me to read more. ;^)

    • Thanks for that John 😀 Actually, am not sure there will be much more of me post 87th! If you ever read another, would love to know what you make of VESPERS about a Satanic cult. I hated it!!!

  4. Matt Paust says:

    Speaking of twists, Sergio, you had me sold in the beginning, then you spun me around with the mention of dark (which usually dampens my enthusiasm) and then the promise of the unforgettable ending. I might have to flip a coin.

  5. tracybham says:

    This one sounds really good, Sergio. And the funny thing is just recently the words “frumious bandersnatch” were going through my head and I could not remember why or what it was from. (I think was was mispronouncing frumious though.

  6. Welcome back, Sergio! I hope you had a grand holiday.
    And thanks for another well-written review though I’m no fan of Ed McBain, I still like to read your takes on the books. 🙂

  7. Sergio – I have not read McBain in years. Between working as Ed McBain and as Evan Hunter, the man sure burned up a lot of typewriter ribbons. Someday, I will get back to him.

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