Returning yet again to the 87th Precinct of Ed McBain, aka Evan Hunter, aka Salvatore Albert Lombino. I’m a half-dozen books into this 55-book series, one that spans just shy of fifty years, and so far I’m impressed. This strong, character-driven series deals with the detectives of the 87th Precinct of a large metropolitan area based on New York. And that strong character focus is what makes the novels shine: getting to know the recurring (and sizable) cast of characters, that familiarity, ties the series together, bringing the lesser works up and helping the great ones excel.
During a routine, open-and-shut homicide case, detectives Arthur Brown and Steve Carella make an interesting discovery: the two men were fighting over a snippet of a photograph, cut in the shape of a jigsaw puzzle, clutched in the hand of one of the two corpses. Back at the station, they’re approached by a man claiming to represent an insurance company, investigating a crime from six years earlier that his career depends on: some bank-robbers pulled a major heist, walked away with $750,000, and then died in the getaway shoot-out. The money was never recovered. Only a list of names—rather, half of the list—had turned up. And each name is of a person with another piece of this photograph, a criminal puzzle showing where that huge chunk of loot was hidden.
Convincing their Lieutenant, Byrnes, that this is worth looking into, Arthur Brown takes the stage and begins his investigation. With Carella down at the station backing him up, Brown spends most of his time away from his family, on the case, deep undercover as he tries to identify the many names and attempt to get their piece of the puzzle. Is this treasure hunt really suited for the detectives of the 87th, I wondered? Soon enough, there’s another murder, and another, and Brown is roughed up in the seedy motel he’s using as cover. Detectives Meyer Meyer and Cotton Hawes are assigned to the many murders following in the wake of Brown’s treasure hunt, providing the novel’s ancillary plot-line. So if there wasn’t enough reason for the police to be on this case, there are by the end.
Every now and then, McBain branches out from the tried-and-true police procedural rigamarole, casting his characters in something new. In Jigsaw, they’re put in a ye olde treasure hunt, like in those old pirate adventure tales. At one point, there’s a montage of all the various crimes committed during a few hours within the 87th’s jurisdiction; reading that, it reinforced my question of whether Brown’s time wasn’t better spent working on one of those cases, on the irony of it all. I guess that it stems from a double-murder, with a growing body toll, is reason enough, and the need to close cold cases is an acceptable answer, but this kind of plot feels more suited to a private eye than the hardworking 87th… and it’s not like Hunter/McBain didn’t write those as well.
I’ve mentioned the McBain’s humanist approach in the 8-7 novels before, and this one is no exception to that rule. The major running theme is race relations, Brown being the token “minority” officer on the force. His views on race are examined as he deals with a never-ending chain of racial slurs and ingrained casual racism. The finale is related to this theme, and it’s offensive and funny at the same time; I’m not sure how to take it. In contrast, we have the portrayal of the gay community, at times ham-handed and hostile, at others almost sympathetic. Both are marred by their use of racial and sexual slurs, dating the book and making it off-putting.
The late ’60s saw McBain moving away from the clean-cut fiction of the ’50s, dealing mature themes and hot-button issues. This included more visceral crime descriptions and harsher language, along with elements of the Civil Rights and feminist movements, but these early novels are raw in an awkward way. It’s like McBain hadn’t figured out the proper balance of this gritter new age, and tended to go overboard.
Jigsaw has its share of entertaining moments, an engaging plot, tarnished by a dated lack of political correctness; while its plot was very creative and layered, I’m still not sure it was one for the 87th’s detectives. On the whole, Jigsaw‘s a mixed novel with both good and bad elements; I didn’t feel it was exceptional or a standout, but it was entertaining enough and very slick. Not the best in the series—there are some real knockouts—but proof that mediocrity can be both filling and brilliant at points. And while I wasn’t blown away by Jigsaw, I did have fun reading it. The mystery and treasure-hunt jigsaw puzzle are well constructed, and it’s good to see such plot diversity in the series.
Fans of the 87th will get more mileage out of this than newcomers or causal readers, though serious fans won’t need my recommendation for any book in this fantastic series: once you get going, there’s a “gotta read ‘em all” mentality that comes with the 87th Precinct.