Six years ago I set myself a challenge: to read (or, in most cases, re-read) all 55 of Ed McBain’s books in his 87th Precinct series of police procedurals, and then review and rate them here at Fedora. It took a while, a lot longer than planned in fact, but I finally got it done!
And now, in what I hope is just a bit of harmless self-indulgence, I thought it would be fun to look back and list my favourites – and list some of the clunkers too! I offer the following post for Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott at her fab Pattinase blog.
McBain (aka Evan Hunter, born Salvatore Lombino) began writing the books in 1955, when Pocket Books gave him a contract for three novels to see if a new series could be launched with the reading public. The results were immediately positive, so much so in fact that the film and TV rights were snapped up almost immediately. And so the series was launched – and would, amazingly, continue for the best part of fifty years.
“I think of myself as a softy. I think the 87th Precinct novels are very sentimental, and the cops are idealistic guys.” – Ed McBain
With the benefit of hindsight, one can see that the series can be split into two distinct periods that see the author writing in decidedly different modes, attracting slightly different audiences. When the series began the paperback boom was in full swing and publishing several shorter books in a series every year was still standard – Richard Stark (for example) would be writing his Parker books in this fashion up to the early 1970s. But eventually this was no longer feasible – books got more expensive and readers wanted more bangs for their bucks, while TV was an ever-growing threat. So the Precinct books too, now being published first in hardback and subsequently in paperback, would have to be sold as more substantial standalone efforts to justify the buying public’s increased investment.
So, in first period we have the books published in the initial twenty years of the series, between Cop Hater in 1956 and So Long As You Both Shall Live in 1976. These are all roughly 150 to 170 pages long (roughly 50,000 words), and tend to focus on one story with perhaps a subsidiary plot. And then in what we can call the second period, there are all the later books, starting with Long Time No See (1977). This served, to use a modern term, to ‘reboot’ the series by recycling and re-imaging the plot of that first entry, the aforementioned Cop Hater, but expanding it to to bring it up-to-date with the changing requirements of the book market. To achieve this it greatly increased the page count (the books from the 1980s are at least 50% longer than those from the 1950s) and made the content more obviously ‘adult’ with saltier language and more explicit sexual situations.
How successful was this rethink of the series? Well, the books continued to do well in terms of sales, and Money, Money, Money from 2001 was especially popular, so from a commercial standpoint one would have to say that McBain did the right thing. From an artistic, critical and personal standpoint, in looking at all my reviews, one thing stands out: that with one notable exception, all my favourites come from the earlier period – and, again with one exception, my absolute least favourites from the series all come from the ‘later’ period. So overall I would have to side with Julian Symons (who, not for nothing, was the inspiration for this blog’s URL), when he said:
“The best McBains are short, Simenon-length books. His longer novels, like Ice (1983) are much less successful.” – from Bloody Murder (3rd edition, 1992).
Actually, I think Ice is a pretty decent book from the latter stages of his career – but this is only a partial endorsement because on the whole I completely agree that the earlier books he wrote are far preferable. And here are the ones I liked the most here at Fedora … This is my Top 13:
OK, first off let me just say that King’s Ransom, a popular book in the series about a kidnapping gone wrong that was later filmed as High and Low by Akira Kurosawa just missed making the list by a whisker – it would definitely be the 14th – probably. But I have focused here exclusively on the books that, in my reviews, I gave the highest rating to. Only one got five stars, and I am saving that until last – these are the ones that got 4 stars. So, in chronological order, the four star entries in the series were:
- The Mugger (1956) – For me, the best of the initial trio of paperbacks written for Pocket Books, and the only one in which Steve Carella doesn’t really feature, being as he was off on his honeymoon with Teddy.
- Killer’s Choice (1957) – crucial book in the series, where we say goodbye to the violent and unpleasant cop Roger Havilland and welcome the arrival of white-streaked ladies’ man, Cotton Hawes.
- Killer’s Payoff (1958) – Arthur Brown made his first appearance here for an under-valued entry that offers a particularly crafty plot.
- Killer’s Wedge (1959) – the great versatility of the 87th Precinct mysteries is well on display with two plots: a siege at the station and a John Dickson Carr style locked room mystery. A wonderful commingling of two styles, effortlessly done, despite showcasing two distinct modes of storytelling that should be completely at odds.
- Give the Boys a Great Big Hand (1960) – a book with a strong plot that also makes the different philosophies of police work and public / private divide as core themes.
- See Them Die (1960) – heartfelt urban realism takes centre-stage for a story told more or less in real time that really packs an emotional punch.
- Ten Plus One (1963) – One of the most subtly developed stories from the 1960s, a tale of theatre and warped sexuality and a sniper investigation that works extremely well. After this title, McBain significantly slowed down production from 3 to only 1 book per year.
- Doll (1965) – a crucial book about Carella, who gets caught in a truly terrifying scenario. McBain had previously tried to kill the character off and here tried again and got even closer to getting the job done. Even Andy Parker sheds a tear,
- Fuzz (1968) – This really shakes the 87th Precinct series up, looking at their work in terms of farce as time and again they trip over their own feet in trying to catch their arch-nemesis, The Deaf Man.
- Bread (1974) – this truly satisfying novel tells a long and complex story extremely well and was the harbinger of things to come as the novels got bigger and bigger but not necessarily better – and this was also the book that introduced Fat Ollie Weeks.
- Blood Relatives (1975) – the last of the great books in the original style, brief and punchy and probably the first I ever read.
- Tricks (1987) – If you want a jumping on point for the later incarnation of the series, this is the perfect place to do it. This book is funny, profane, clever and exciting and also, in its own way, moving.
And the worst? Unkind, I know, but the lowest rated, over the years, have been this bunch, all for very different reasons:
In the case of ’til Death (1959) and So Long as You Both Shall Live (1976), we have two very thinly plotted stories set around a wedding (respectively that of Carella’s sister and Bert Kling) that are lightly amusing as a change of pace but prove utterly un-memorable. In the case of the latter book, it just may also be the shortest book in the entire canon (it’s a toss-up between this and Ax). In the case of Vespers (1990), it seems to me that McBain horribly misjudged the use of children in orgiastic religious ceremonies as a way to spice up a story. And in Nocturne (1997) there is a protracted rape and murder sequence that is to me completely unjustified in terms of the narrative. Many of the later books were spiced up with salacious sexual scenes but in these two cases I felt the author went well beyond acceptable barriers in books that were too intrinsically lightweight to support, or excuse even, their inclusion.
But, to end on a deserved high note, my absolutely favourite
87th Precinct mystery of all, and indeed the only one that I gave full marks to during the six years I spent reviewing them, remains one of the most consistently highly praised titles in the series:
As I said in my review of it all those years ago (well, January 2014), I included this book in my (still developing) list of Top 100 Mysteries and upon re-reading it see no reason to change that – it is without doubt one of the finest books in the 87th Precinct series. Strongly influenced by Simenon, this is as much a character study as a puzzle – we know right from the beginning who the murder is but we just don’t know why. With its strong characterisation, perfectly modulated tone and tight structure and with a fine, dramatic flourish at its conclusion, this is about as good as the police procedural can get. You can check out my reviews of the entire series at my 87 Precinct microsite.
It’s been one hell of a ride and I don’t imagine I will ever be able to undertake anything quite like this again – but it is a testament to the fine art of Mr McBain that, barring a couple of minor bumps in the road, I never doubted I’d finish or that I would want to.