HARK! (2004) by Ed McBain

The Deaf Man, the cold-blooded super-criminal whose antics plagued the boys and girls of the 87th Precinct for decades was last seen, in 1993’s Mischief, being tied naked to a bed and being shot twice in the chest by Gloria, his two-timing confederate. But it seems that you just can’t keep a good arch-nemesis down, and after a decade to recuperate he returned for what would prove to be his final appearance, in the penultimate book in the series. And this time he teases and frustrates the squad by quoting from the works of Shakespeare. But what is he really up to?

I submit this review for  Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog.

Mischief (87th Precinct series #54)
First Published: 2004
Leading players: Steve Carella, The Deaf Man, Cotton Hawes, Bert Kling, Meyer Meyer, Eileen Burke, Hal Willis, Richard Genero, Arthur Brown, Fat Ollie Weeks, Andy Parker, Lieutenant Byrnes, Bob O’Brien, Teddy Carella, Sharyn Cooke, Honey Blair, Monoghan & Monroe

“I’m just saying Marlowe talked a lot like Shakespeare.”
“Did Raymond Chandler know that?” Kling asked.
“Know what?” Brown asked.
“Who’s Raymond Chandler?” Genero asked.
“The guy who wrote the books,” Meyer said.
“What books?”
“The Philip Marlowe novels.”
“Did he know he sounded like Shakespeare?”
“I’m talking about Christopher Marlowe,” Willis said.

The previous book in the series had been inspired by Lewis Carroll while this one is all about Shakespeare – or rather, the references from his plays which make up the blizzard of messages the Deaf Man starts to send Carella and others in the lead up to his latest caper, which is due to be executed on 12 June. This also happens to be the day when Carella is giving away his mother and his sister at their double wedding. He is still highly conflicted about it, as he has been for the last few novels – frankly, we’d all really him to get over this, especially as it has brought out a weirdly anti-Italian and anti-immigrant stance, which obviously makes no sense as he is the son of Italian immigrants. He just misses his Dad and resents that Luigi, a comparative stranger, is planning to marry his widowed mother and move her away from Isola and back to his home, in Milan! Previous books in the series dealing with weddings – ’till Death (1959) and So Long as You Both Shall Live (1976) – were abject failures. Would this be the book to reverse the trend?

It was the shrug that told her he was going to kill her.

We get one primary crime plot involving The Deaf Man, which does drag on rather I’m sorry to say and which then splinters into another case when his confederate and current bedmate commits a murder in Fat Ollie’s precinct. Apart from The Deaf Man storyline, we also have several subplot that mostly pertain to the domestic lives of the cops as well as one criminous thread in which Cotton Hawes becomes the target of a sniper and gets shot in the foot in the process. But this gets mixed up with his ongoing relationship with TV reporter Honey Blair, with sad results. We also get flashbacks to Carella’s youth (which populate several of the last few novels in the series and which I would venture were based on McBain’s own escapades when he was still known as Sal Lambino). We are also reminded of previous cases involving The Deaf Man, most notably 1968’s Fuzz, in which Eileen and Hal spent a ‘moment’ in a sleeping bag. They get closer again here and time they go for a fuller relationship, which frankly gets described in a bit more detail that I needed to know about. But there are plenty of laughs too, not least when Ollie finally finds Emilio, the cross-dressing prostitute who stole his novel.

“You burned it? You telling me you burned it? You burned my novel?”

Problems on the domestic front also arise when both Bert and Cotton realise that their respective girlfriends are holding something back – Bert, foolish man, repeats the mistakes he made with his wife Augusta way back in Heat (1981) and starts following Sharyn to find out why she is spending so much time with a colleague (black) and another woman (white) and not telling him about it.

The Deaf Man cases

  • The Heckler (1960) – which I previously reviewed here
  • Fuzz (1968) – reviewed here
  • Let’s Hear it for the Deaf Man! (1973) – reviewed here
  • Eight Black Horses (1985) – review
  • Mischief (1993) – review
  • Hark! (2004)

By the time the book was completed, McBain had been unwell for several years, so it is not surprising that he chose to write a book that pretty much included every single one of his characters from the series. As a result, at 350 pages, this has the biggest page count of any in the series (though admittedly it is hard to say if it actually is the longest, what with different fonts and leading choices over the years). And yes, there is a fair amount of padding to get to that number of pages – The Deaf Man definitely sends far too many notes in the post, all of which get discussed, over and over, as the various acrostic and Shakespearean permutations are worked out. But despite the padding, the lewd material and the surfeit of protagonists, there is still much to enjoy, no least because as always the dialogue is as always highly amusing. And we get McBain keeping up with the times with rap song lyrics and references to the Law and Order TV show.

Definitely not up to the standard of Fuzz (1968) and Eight Black Horses (1985), but at least better than the other 87th stories involving weddings! And we get a few plot threads left hanging to take us into Fiddlers, the very last book in the series, to be reviewed here next month.

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

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18 Responses to HARK! (2004) by Ed McBain

  1. Thanks, as ever, for the fine review, Sergio. That’s the thing about a long-running series like this one. It’s well-nigh impossible to make every book a real winner. It’s to McBain’s credit that he did so much right over so long, even if this one isn’t close to his best…

  2. Colin says:

    Actually just started in on Lady Killer today so I have a bit to go before I get to any of the Deaf Man stories – nice to have them to look forward to.

    • Chronology is rarely a problem in his series (Well, except when it is, mainly later on though). Hope you enjoy that one – until the mid 70s all a good with maybe one or two that are a bit too slight. This ‘ain’t one of those

  3. realthog says:

    I’m pretty sure I’ve read this one, but I can remember nuffin of it. Does that constitute a comment on the novel or is it just that it’s an effing long time since I read the book? Or both? Oh the nervous breakdowns going on here in Joisey . . .

    I do envy Colin. I started reading about the boys ‘n’ gals of the good old 87 when I was maybe ten (thanks to my much older cousin Brian, who lent me a few). Over the years I reckon I’ve read most of the series, but in a haphazard way. The notion of doing a McBainiad — starting at #1 and continuing on from there — is so bleeding tempting, but.

    • I will be doing a wrap up post on the entire series in a few weeks so that might spur you to action. But one has to face the reality that there is so much great stuff out there. Thanks John for keeping tabs. To be honest, there are several I don’t really remember anymore already!

  4. tracybham says:

    I am just at Killer’s Choice, and I had better get going or I will never finish the series. It will be interesting to see the changes as the years go by.

  5. Reminds me how much I loved them. I haven’t read them for a while so maybe time to dig them out and give them another go.

  6. I detected a falling off in Ed McBain’s later books in the 87th Precinct series. I think the best books were published in the 1980s.

    • I would agree that the later, bigger books are a lot more variable – my favourites are among the first 30 or, up to the mid 1970s, with BREAD and BLOOD RELATIVES as to great peaks after which things did get a bit bumpy of occasion.

  7. I admire your enthusiasm for a series that I’ve tried to get into but never have. (Though I still have one of the books on my Kindle but keep putting off reading it for fear I’ll let you down if I don’t like it.)

  8. Simon says:

    It’s sad that the next one was the last. I wonder where they would have gone if McBain had not succumbed to that vile illness and had been able to continue. Would we ever have learned the true identity of the Deaf Man? I wonder .

  9. Mathew Paust says:

    Time for me to read another McBain. I’m so far behind I’ll never get even half of them read.

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