My parents live near a library which has these amazing book sales—a buck for hardcovers, fifty cents for paperbacks, annual bag sales. It’s a fine, fine thing. The last time I was there, I stumbled onto a plethora of Ed McBain hardcovers, and bought a half-dozen. McBain’s one of those names I’d seen now and again, since he had a Hard Case Crime and wrote screenplays (the most famous is Hitchcock’s The Birds, and The Blackboard Jungle was one of several of his novels to be filmed. Including the first two 87th Precinct novels, Cop Hater and The Mugger).
Ed McBain was in reality Evan Hunter, who was in reality Salvatore Albert Lombino; some editor told this young Italian kid from the Bronx that he’d sell more books under the Hunter name. And sell books he did, by the bushel: under a half-dozen pseudonyms, he published hundreds of novels and stories, mostly mysteries with a smattering of science-fiction. What he’s best known for is his 87th Precinct, a fictional police department in a fictional city (based on New York) that obeyed real police rules and regulations. Think Dragnet, with its “the story you are about to see is true” intro; the TV series was a huge influence on McBain. (Irony of ironies, NBC had its own 87th Precinct show in 1961.)
I thought I’d start with the earliest 87th Precinct novel I own and work back; in this case, it’s novel two, The Mugger. (Such a creative title.)
You know her tossed head in the auburn crowns of molting autumn foliage, Riverhead, and the park. […] You have seen her naked streets, have heard the sullen murmur of the wind in the concrete canyons of Isola, have watched her come awake, alive. […] She is big and sprawling and dirty sometimes, and sometimes she shrieks in pain, and sometimes she moans in ecstasy.
But she could be nothing but a woman, and that’s good because your business is women.
You are a mugger.
Uhm. Okay. Why the hell haven’t I been reading these already?
The story bounces between the harness bulls and detectives of the 87th, thus having a huge cast of characters (so bear with). There’s a mugger in town preying on women: he jumps them from behind, socks them, takes their purse and whatever incidental cash they had on them, then bows before leaving, stating “Clifford thanks you.” He’s struck about a dozen women, and there are no leads. Detectives Hal Willis and Roger Havilland are on the case, but despite shaking down Willis’s stool pigeon—a rotund man named Fats Donner who speaks fine beatnik argot—the police are going nowhere. And their Lieutenant, Byrnes, is getting more flustered with each new mugging. Their new plan is to use a female detective, Eileen Burke, as bait.
Meanwhile, our primary character is Patrolman Bert Kling, who’s leaving the hospital after getting shot (I assume this happened in the first book). He’s tracked down by an old-time acquaintance who wants him to talk to his sister-in-law, Jeannie Paige, a teenage knockout who’s been acting strange the past few weeks. Kling does; she tells him she’s fine, but doesn’t act like it. And she ends up dead the next night, with the trademark sunglasses of Clifford crushed in her limp hand. Bert Kling decides to look into the matter on his own, in between walking beats and dating Claire Townsend, a friend of Jeannie’s he meets during his investigation attempts.
McBain’s writing seals any deal; it hooks you from the first page, and doesn’t let up. It’s compelling and poetic, no matter what’s going on; even when it’s basic description, his prose glimmers with style. The chapters are full of great hooks that keep your reading, which combine with the imagery and characterization and plot for an engaging read. I had to stop myself or I’d have finished the book in one long night. (Instead, I did it in two.) The novel is heavy on dialogue, which is realistic and terse; it’s also heavy on characters, who are all developed and unique enough that you can tell them apart. A good thing, since there’s a large cast of detectives, and numerous bit players.
McBain is great as he develops the city, blending that amazing imagery with snippets of history and descriptive details; the city comes alive, each district and neighborhood fleshed out in supreme detail. Never once does its layout or history feel forced or excessive. The same goes with the police forms and documents casually inserted in the narrative: odd but not forced, realistic but not enough so to take you out of the world. It’s a nice addition, adding a strong feeling of realism; its load-bearing mysteries—a single murder, a mugger—aren’t as unique as some of the other 87th Precinct novels I glanced at, but that back-to-basics feel helps it feel possible.
The city is, of course, New York done different, inspired by the American Ur-City, with elements from every other metropolis influenced by New York. It’s the urban Americana melting pot, with its large Irish, Jewish and Italian communities represented by many of the 87th’s officers. And much to his credit McBain portrays minorities—blacks and Puerto Ricans, as well as the aforementioned Irish and Jews and Italians—in a favorable light, with no hostile stereotypes here. (There’s one awkward scene where a detective goes old-school on an innocent Puerto Rican, though, which is pretty unsavory in an era with police brutality laws.) I have to wonder how much is based off the city McBain saw first-hand growing up in East Harlem and the Bronx.
I said Dragnet was a huge influence, and it shows. It reads something like novelization of a good crime movie, and I mean that in a good way: it’s vivid enough to imagine, tangible enough to feel alive. The scenes sound like movie sets of the time, and I can picture them as such in my mind’s eye. Between the characterization, plot, and dialogue, it feels like a strong script. The characters have that interesting dose of realism you see in police procedural TV shows—McBain created the genre, after all. They’re almost all overworked, underpaid, undersexed men—blue-collar workers with guns. They talk about the dames and broads that come in to report the muggings; a behind-the-scenes look at people for whom it is work, who do it many times a day, and aren’t too pleased that it’s not stopping.
Downsides? McBain tends to use repetitive phrases and words in his writing, and I’m not sure whether I’m sold on it as a literary device or of it’s too clunky. He also throws in a lot of “police realism” details that don’t seem necessary, like the yearly salaries for Willis and Burke. (She earns more than he does; I had to flip back and check.) Minor flaws, I’ll admit. There’s also that first-hand example of why we have police brutality laws. My biggest issue? It involves spoilers. The mugger, Clifford, is a perfect eccentric character, but his motives are never explained beyond “he needed a fast buck.” That was something of a letdown.
The Mugger is short, fast, and slick; the pacing and plot are tight, the characters and world are fascinating. I have few complaints on the technical side; its prose is high-quality stuff that makes the compelling book come alive. It is a fine example of ’50s noir, rich with imagery and fine dialogue, interesting characters and a distinctive crime to investigate. I have to say, I’m sold on McBain after reading just one of his books. I’m glad I bought a bunch of these, since if this one’s any indication, I’m going to become quite familiar with the 87th Precinct.