This is the first 87th Precinct so far that made me feel bad about reading them out of order; there’s a lot of spoilers below for some of the longer-running character elements, so reader beware.
A murdered fashion model named Tinka leaves behind a young daughter and plenty of secrets. Detective Steve Carella is assigned to her case, sickened by the waste of life; he requests Detective Bert Kling as his partner, which is something of a surprise. Kling has been depressed, on edge, and confrontational since his girlfriend Claire Townsend’s death, and is taking it out on the world. Regardless, Carella hopes to redeem him, but after working on the case for one day, the two detectives get into a petty argument over interrogation techniques and Kling storms off.
Soldiering on alone, Carella stumbles onto some secrets and blows the case wide open. He realizes who the killer is, storms into his apartment without backup… and is brained, handcuffed, and tortured by the killer and his sadistic girlfriend.
In the morning, the rest of the Eight-Seven find a charred and mangled corpse in the crushed wreckage of Carella’s car.
And that’s only in chapter four! When the angry lieutenant comes down—hard—on Kling, Detective Meyer Meyer takes over the case. But Kling isn’t down and out yet; Steve was his partner after all, and he’s not going to take that sitting down. Meyer and Kling are on a mission to ensure justice gets done. And little do they know, but they’re working on a tight time-frame, and must nail the perp before he kills again.
At their core, the 87th Precinct novels are only half police procedural; they have a well-established cast of characters who float in and out of the narrative, changing up the starring roster each book. It’s a lot more character-focused and humanist than your average hardboiled detective yarn, and that gives the series a much deeper emotional impact. In Doll, McBain stops to show how each of the characters takes the news of Carella’s death: Detectives Meyer and Hawes, crooked cop Parker, Lieutenant Byrnes, and Carella’s widow, the deaf-mute Teddy.
These snippets of the characters’ off-the-job lives give a great feel of character and world-depth; it also reminds me of how in most modern crime shows, you’re watching more to see the detectives’ complex relationships and less for the by-the-numbers, pick-a-fall-guy mystery rehashing the show’s stock crimes. To be honest, the actual “mystery” elements in the 87th are often less interesting than your average hardboiled detective tale, due to their police procedural nature (lots of interviewing suspects) and true-to-life realism (everyday crimes). What makes the books rise from passable or good to excellent is the strength of character that builds up with each subsequent novel, watching the detectives’ lives progress on and off the job, seeing their day-to-day interaction and workday banter. You can’t read just one 87th novel and get a good indication of the series’ quality; the stories grow and become a collective, a true series, when read in batches.
Doll is a gritter work than previous McBain novels; it deals with two gruesome murders, the pitfalls of drug addiction, and the author even drops a few F-bombs along the way. Compared to the other 8-7 novels I read, this one had a much stronger dark side, more intense and grim. Not that a group of detectives investigating murders is often happy and pleasant, but the tone of this one made the others look more lighthearted. It fits the story very well, and I think it works.
My big complaint about my previous 87th Precinct, Killer’s Choice, was that it involved a six-year-old girl who was acted like a small, slightly confused adult. In Doll, we have Tinka’s five-year-old daughter Anna, who acts like a scared five-year-old. Much more impressed at the author’s characterization of her, because she feels so innocent and lost… adding more emotional weight to the fact her mother was stabbed to death while Anna hid in the room next door. The initial conversation between Anna and Carella was powerful; it built up his compassion and humanity right before he winds up dead and gone. Well-played by Mr. McBain.
So far in the 87th lineup, I’ve read The Mugger, which blew me away, and Killer’s Choice, which wasn’t bad but not as exceptional because it was so damn slow. And now, Doll, a fine book with a tight, taut mystery, a compelling plot, and some fascinating developments. It’s still traditional, character-driven, humanist Ed McBain, with the 87th’s impressive cast of developed (and growing) characters: detectives and their families, beat cops, medical examiners, homicide detectives. Doll is tough on its characters, so it has a strong emotional impact to go with its tense investigating, and the resolution pays dividends.
And finally, a spoiler, for those who cannot resist knowing:
If you think Steve Carella is dead, think again; all you had to do was glance at a later book to realize he shows up years later, a tough act if you’re dead. It’s a credit to McBain that Carella’s “death” has so much of an emotional impact because of the gory details and shock of it all; the fact Kling’s girlfriend was killed a few books previous implies McBain is fine with killing his darlings, so there’s an established precedent for the death of a protagonist. And the grim nature helps, too. Speaking of which, there are several “dolls” in this book: the child’s toy named Chatterbox; slang for the deceased fashion model; and the drug-addled slave Carella becomes. Heavy-duty stuff, right there.
Of course, I ended up with a book revealing Kling’s marriage to someone who isn’t Claire Townsend, implying his future with Claire wasn’t so bright; though his next ladyfriend isn’t out of the woods yet since she’s kidnapped on her wedding day. That novel’s blurb told me.