After reading so many 87th Precinct novels early last year, it feels like it’s been since I read one of them. I don’t remember if I read about Evan Hunter/Ed McBain first and bought his books because of that, or if I found the mystery book club three-in-one and then researched the man. Either way it got me started on the 55-volume series of police procedurals, and while not every one is a smash hit, they form a fine collective. You really get a feel for the characters, each with their own personalities and quirks, and reading the novels in order gives a gradual progression of their lives. That humanist touch gives the 87th a strong dose of realism, even when the plots are madcap, grim, or ridiculously complex.
While out walking his beat, patrolman Richard Genaro exits a tailor shop to see someone of undetermined gender get on a bus, leaving an airline bag behind. Genaro tries to flag the bus down to return the bag until he bothers to look inside it, finding an abnormally large severed human hand. And with that, the detectives of the 87th Precinct have a case. With Steve Carella in the lead, they start tracking down missing persons who’d fit the hand’s description. The missing persons’ bureau brings the attention of another missing person—“Bubbles” Caesar, stripper—to the attention of Carella and Bert Kling, only because she flew into town on the airline whose bag the hand was found in.
McBain’s tone changes from book to book; some are dark and grim, others frenetic and humorous some are traditional investigation-mysteries, some focus on one crime or character, while still others track multiple characters across multiple everyday crimes. This eleventh entry in the series sees McBain taking an energetic and bouncy tone. The title itself is an in-joke double-entendre; the “boys” are the 87th’s detectives and the “great big hand” is the dismembered limb they first encounter. The jovial tone and grisly subject matter make for a great contrast; the book’s tone keeps a light atmosphere even when the “boys” are burning themselves out trying to track down the hand’s owner. The writing style is still a little unsure and youthful compared to the later entries, but that adds to the bouncy energy McBain’s writing exudes.
So, you can tell McBain was keeping tongue in cheek for this one. This leads to a number of humorous interludes: detective Cotton Hawes interviewing one of Bubbles’ roommates, another stripper, as she gets dressed for a pin-up photo shoot; the opening scene of Dick Genaro’s lack of subtlety when bugging a shop owner for a glass of wine while on the job; the tough-as-nails mother of one of the missing persons who’s dragged to the station in nothing but her slip since her one-night-stand paramour is revealed to have a sizable amount of marijuana on his possession.
I’m also still impressed by McBain’s use of minority characters; maybe I shouldn’t be, since there’d been minority policemen all the way back to the first novel, Cop Hater (though I should point out it was one black detective who ended up killed pretty quick). In Give The Boys a Great Big Hand, it’s Peurto Rican policeman Frankie Hernandez, who became a cop to fight the good fight against the prejudices heaped against Puerto Ricans. By now, McBain has created a stand-in for the dark, crooked side of the police force—Andy Parker—who ends up getting his just desserts delivered via Carella’s fist after he heckles Frankie a bit too much. On the other hand, the views on women are mixed. McBain’s love interests for his primary characters are independent women; Carella’s wife Teddy is a deaf-mute but very independent, and Bert Kling’s girlfriend Claire is going for her masters degree.
McBain’s displaying his skills here, and hitting more than he misses. (Then again, I find the titular pun worthy of mere eye-rolling, not groaning.) As usual, we see another slice of the characters’ lives, their growth and development, in the background of a complex and unpredictable mystery. The prose is crisp and fast-moving, and even when the detectives are investigating dead-ends I remained invested—by now, I’m invested in these characters and know their personalities well, one of the advantages to a long-running series like this. The ending was shocking, yet oddly appropriate considering all the plot elements that were introduced. Give The Boys A Great Big Hand is an engaging entry into the series, fulfillment without excess, tightly plotted and well executed.