Ranking the 87th Precinct Mysteries

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 even 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 to publish several shorter books in a series every year was still standard – for examples, Richard Stark would be writing his Parker books in this fashion up to the early 1970s. But eventually this was no longer feasible – books cost more, readers wanted more bangs for their bucks, TV was a bigger threat than ever. So the 87th 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 investment.

So, in period 1 we have the the books published in the first twenty years of the series, between Cop Hater in 1956 and So Long As You Both Shall Live in 1976, which are all roughly 150 to 170 pages long (roughly 50,ooo 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 do 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 focussed 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. but these are the ones that got 4 stars – so, in chronological order, the four star entries in the series were:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Killer’s Payoff (1958) – Arthur Brown made his first appearance here for an under-valued entry that offers a particularly crafty plot.
  4. 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 completely distinct modes of storytelling that should be completely at odds.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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,
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. Blood Relatives (1975) – the last of the great books in the original style, brief and punchy and probably the first I ever read.
  12. 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:

Sadie When She Died (1972)

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 quote 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.

Grazie Salvatore!

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51 Responses to Ranking the 87th Precinct Mysteries

  1. realthog says:

    Many thanks for this. As I think you know, McBain is my god.

    Obviously I disagree with you in some of the details (I have great fondness for many of the later novels, such as the wonderful Fat Ollie’s Book), but that’s what pubs are for. (Should you make it to NYC, lemme know and we’ll find a pub . . .)

    Ironically, one of the ones I haven’t read is Sadie When She Died. I must try to lay hands on it.

    • You really must read SADIE – and definitely up for a drink, though it will have to be a virgin one for me (even the new Ollie would disapprove)

      • realthog says:

        Just to let you know, I’ve now (re)read Sadie, and have linked to this page from here.

        • I am of course tempted to say, right, OK, that one wasn’t quite right, so hows about …. and I should resist that. So interesting your mentioning of padding – I don’t think I made any reference to that at all, but did in my other reviews. I take your point about “best” being an odd thing to say about such a long and varied series. It’s the one that struck me as being the most successful in what it set out to communicate and achieve I suppose? Really enjoyed the review and your reposet to my original take – maybe we should have attempted a joint McBain post? In another life perhaps 🙂

          • realthog says:

            I am of course tempted to say, right, OK, that one wasn’t quite right,

            Crivvens, no! I think you’re absolutely right to put Sadie at the top of your list, no arguments . . . it’s just that it wouldn’t land at the top of my list!

            Your reviews of the series form a resource of ongoing value. Many thanks.

          • Thanks for all the great support – it makes all the difference

  2. Christophe says:

    Thanks for this very handy post.

  3. What a rich and informative post, Sergio. I’m so glad you got the chance to read all of these. As you found, they’re not all of equal quality (and I agree; the earlier ones are better). But McBain at his weakest is better than a lot of writers at their best! And what a fine set of characters, I think. I appreciate your discussing the ones that you liked best and why, too. So much great ‘food for thought!’

  4. tracybham says:

    This is great and very useful, Sergio. I love to read “best of” lists. And I like your explanation of the split when the novels changed to greater length.

  5. Aidan says:

    A great way to mark the completion of your epic read-through and a very handy get started guide for those who, like me, haven’t actually read any McBain. You have inspired me to go ahead and give them a try. 🙂

  6. Colin says:

    I’ve so enjoyed your journey through the series and the regular appearances of the 87th books has been one of the highlights afforded by visiting this place – I’ll miss that.
    Anyway, great overview, even if I’m still in the early stages of working through the books myself, I appreciate the fact your thoughts are here to peruse whenever I finish another volume.

  7. Art Taylor says:

    Terrific here. Been following the individual reviews, of course, but this is great to get an overview. I’ve taught Sadie several times before, though in class I often use the shorter version that was originally published in AHMM. Glad to see it rise to the top in your rankings!

  8. Brad says:

    Sergio, mi dispiace tanto che stai chiudendo il sito che ho imparato l’italiano – beh, l’italiano per internet – per dirti quanto mi dispiace! Spero che sarai ancora presente in altri modi! È stata un’esperienza piacevole chiacchierare con te sui libri sul cyberspazio! Qualunque cosa accada, ti auguro le vacanze più felici e un meraviglioso Anno Nuovo! Il tuo amico GAD, Brad

  9. Wonderful summing up of McBain’s 87th Precinct series! I agree with your choices. And now I’ll have to go back and reread SADIE WHEN SHE DIED! Well done!

  10. Todd Mason says:

    Well, on your say so, Sergio, I’ll give SADIE a shot someday…how much of the work he signed Hunter have you read by now? How much of tge other pseuds?

    • I hope that you do enjoy it if you do – be nice to find one one that went down well 🙂 I have read very little of his other work, and of that I think only as Hunter. But all a long time ago – none at all since I set myself this challenge!

  11. Jeff Meyerson says:

    Anyone who has read extensively in the Agatha Christie canon should see the solution to BLOOD RELATIVES coming from a long way off.

    • Can’t say that helped me much Jeff – but then, though I have read most of them, I have never looked too closely at her plot construction. What is interesting to me is the McBains as police procedurals should feel like a world away from Christie but is not at all.

  12. You know I’m not a real fan, Sergio. But KILLER’S WEDGE sounds intriguing. Thanks, kiddo. I will be giving this one a try. 🙂

  13. Simon says:

    Interesting and informative, thanks for this. I note that only one “deaf man” story made the list. Are you not a fan or are you perhaps saving him for a separate review? Perhaps an analysis of this damnably intriguing villain and his complex plots could be a consideration? Also , did you know ( and I’m sure you did) that the plot of “As Long As You Both Shall Live” was used as the basis for a Columbo episode?
    Again, thank you so much for these reviews, McBain is one of my top three all time favourite authors, and following these posts has been a delight. I shall miss them

    • Thanks very much Simon – good point! I did include FUZZ but not really as a The Deaf Man story, more because I liked the comedy. They are a bit of a special case but no, they are not among my favourites actually. Maybe because we never found out anything about him or because none of his capers seemed quite clever enough to me. But they are special and do merit extra attention, I agree. And yes. In the case of the two novels adapted for COLUMBO I reviewed the TV version too. Neither seemed really worth the effort, did they? Shame.

      • Simon says:

        I agree. It does seem a shame that they should have taken his work to use as a plot for another character instead of launching a new series. I seem to remember back in the 70s , Columbo used to rotate with shows like “ MacMillan and Wife”, “Banacek” and others. This would have been a perfect intro for an 87th Precinct series. It would have been interesting to see the deaf man as a semi recurring character on screen, I was never really happy with the only two screen portrayals of him, Robert Vaughn as a very mediocre easily caught criminal in an adaptation of “The Heckler ” in the 1960s tv series, and Yul Brynner in a movie that, given McBain wrote the screenplay was a bit of a disappointing farce. He turned Meyer , for some reason into a bumbling klutz that the lieutenant didn’t like. Wasn’t Lionsgate going to produce a new series a few years ago, I seem to recall? I wonder if McBain hadn’t passed, if he’d have written a final Deaf Man story, a sort of “Reichenbach Falls” for him and Carella? ( As you may be able to tell, I’m a bit obsessed with the deaf man, along with Red John, he’s my favourite “ bad guy”). I think it’s because of the mystery… something which the producers of The Mentalist ruined with that denouement…rant over 😂

  14. neeru says:

    Well done, Sergio. This is a remarkable achievement. Haven’t read any McBain except for FUZZ which I quite enjoyed. However, a library I frequent has quite a few of his books and I do intend to read them. Thanks for all the posts.

  15. jerry says:

    if you’re going to make a top 13 list then you might as well make it a top 14 and put in King’s Ransom

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