In the coldest winter (March!) the city has ever seen, death threats start coming in to the offices of the 87th Precinct. The first says that the Parks Commissioner will be killed unless $5,000 is paid. Thinking it a bluff, he goes about his everyday routine… with disastrous consequences. The second letter demands $50,000 for the life of the Deputy Mayor. And as the 87th’s detectives make frantic preparations, they start to wonder what the point of this is… and if the criminal mastermind behind it, the man making them look like Keystone Cops to decimate their moral, is the nefarious Deaf Man, an unknown assailant believed to have died during his last reign of terror…
Onto plot two. Detective Steve Carella is on stakeout, trying to catch some juvenile arsonists who’ve been setting fire to bums. You can see where this is going when I note that, to go about investigating, Steve’s plan is sleeping in alleys and doorways without backup. I appreciate McBain’s willingness to “kill his darlings” (or at least abuse them), and that it ties in with the psychological aspect of the first plot—these cops are overworked and starting to question their abilities in faceing the Deaf Man. But there’s something a bit ludicrous about sending a detective—even an experienced one—out alone as bait for firebugs. And then after getting badly burned, he’s patched up and sent out again. Sigh.
Our third plot starts when one of the guys used by the Deaf Man to deliver an extortion note, Antony La Bresca, goes under scrutiny; Arthur Brown is set to wiretap him, and after wading through the conversations of the suspect’s Italian-speaking mother, he strikes paydirt. La Bresca and a few other dropouts are going to strike a tailor shop in the 87th’s jurisdiction, a simple smash-and-grab before the owner deposits his earnings some Friday. Of course, the overworked 87th is told to put this case on priority over the Deaf Man.
The novel is loaded with logical fallacies and flaws. Nobody seems to care about the extortion notes/death threats, and the first victim is let to wander around without any police protection. The Deaf Man’s plan is just shy of ludicrous; by the end, it involves threatening wealthy individuals, mailing them letters saying “Look what we did to high-ranking officials under the nose of the police, mail us money or this will happen to you.” I’ve already mentioned the stupidity of Carella’s assignment, which is more of a death sentence. And the end of the novel has a random yet predictable mess, where all three plot-lines intersect by sheer dumb luck. Random chance and stupidity describe most, if not all, of the actions in this book; some were played up for humorous intent, while others were either pointless or cringe-worthy poor decisions.
With that to consider, I think the book’s still got a few choice strengths that pull it out of the abyss and make it interesting. First off, this is the most compelling and readable 87th novel I’ve seen, where McBain’s prose flows like a lazy river, beautiful at times, harrowing at others. The series had little moments of humor before, but here, parts of the book are hilarious why still shy of comic; I foresee some fans will disapprove of the use of humor in a serious police series, but I felt its lighthearted nature was welcome relief in a book about murder and extortion. And McBain didn’t just bring back his old stalwart master criminal, he brought back many familiar faces, including informant Fats Donner (without his beat argot from ten years previous) and female detective Eileen Burke, both characters I remember from The Mugger, and even a certain news reporter named Savage from Cop Hater.
Speaking of characters. I think I note this for every single 8-7 novel, but McBain’s character-driven, humanist approach is the centerpiece of the series. The more of these novels you read, the more you become familiar with these characters, watching them develop, seeing their relationships at work and at home. Having cameos from many of the 87th’s supporting cast is a fine idea, as was bringing back the Deaf Man. And the introduction of new(er) characters works well: we have the bumbling patrolman Genaro, who shoots himself on accident, as he tries his best to be a part of the 87th’s best. There’s less off-the-job scenes than in previous books—this one’s all business—but there are a number of fascinating developments. On the one hand, we have Lieutenant Byrnes butting heads with the police commissioner; on the lighthearted side, Detective Meyer Meyer has to deal with wisecracking painters and the irritating discovery that someone named their book Meyer Meyer. (There’s also the Great Squadroom Mystery, which was worth a few chuckles.)
So while the book has a number of logical flaws, I feel it’s one of the most readable and rewarding of the ones I’ve read so far. It’s not a great starting-off point; far from it. By now, there’s so much established history with the detectives that it’s more rewarding for the long-term reader; knowledge of the 87th series isn’t required before diving into any of its novels, but the sheer number of stupid mistakes, coincidences, and even the humor might not be selling points readers expecting a strong, serious mystery. Knowing the cast instead of seeing them as strangers helps this one work, aided by McBain’s solid style.
Readers already familiar with the setting (namely fans) will be rewarded with a well-rounded and lighthearted entry in the 87th’s distinguished career. There’s some great moments for the 87th’s regular cast, and the goofiness makes things enjoyable; it’s on par with Donald Westlake’s comic crime novels. I found it a welcome change of pace when read between some of McBain’s grittier 87th novels.