While I haven’t taken the same plunge as Sergio over at Tipping My Fedora and planned to read all the novels in the 87th Precinct series, I’ve found them likable and entertaining enough that I buy and read them whenever possible. Their creator was Ed McBain, pseudonym for Evan Hunter; inspired by Dragnet, Hunter/McBain came up with a series of novels where the star wasn’t just a single police detective whose investigation was based on real-world technique, he came up with a whole squad room of detectives whose investigations were based on real-world techniques. And it’s that squad room of detectives who find themselves held hostage by a madwoman in Killer’s Wedge, the seventh of fifty-five 87th Precinct novels.
Virginia Dodge walks into the 87th Precinct squad room with a .38 and a bottle of nitroglycerin, and in one fell kick to the gut she’s holding the on-duty detectives hostage. Her con husband Frank died in prison, and she blames it on the cop who put him away—Steve Carella. Now she’s going to sit there and wait for him to return so she can gun him down in revenge, and if anyone tries to mess with her she’ll drop the nitro and let God sort out the remains. She’s already blown away file clerk Alf Miscolo when he entered at the wrong time, and the 87th watch helplessly as the comatose Miscolo slowly bleeds to death. Cotton Hawes, Lieutenant Brynes, and Meyer Meyer aren’t going to sit idly by, and each comes up with their own schemes to foil Dodge and get her away from the nitro—and each scheme comes crashing down at the last minute.
Where is Steve Carella? Investigating a locked-room suicide of a wealthy scion and his dysfunctional brood. Carella thinks it’s more than suicide—it was murder! murder most foul!—and sets about looking for motive and technique. I think this plotline is a good example both of McBain’s sense of humor, and his homage to mystery novels in general; in the midst of the tense hostage situation, we have Carella investigating in a locked-room cozy.
To be honest, I found this section dull and meandering, the mystery not particularly interesting or complicated, with Carella pondering bits of string and pulley-systems and other clues; both the compelling hostage storyline and my personal dislike of locked-room whodunits could be clouding my judgement. (Really, it just felt like McBain’s good excuse to have fun while keeping Carella away from the squad room.) Though, this plot arc does offer us choice lines in Carella’s internal monologue:
What do we do now? Send a wire off to John Dickson Carr?
Again, McBain’s sharp wit and love of the genre. It makes things bearable, though I’m still not a fan.
The real trick McBain’s working is the methodical planning of the 87th’s detectives, jumping from character to character as they connive a way to overthrow Virginia Dodge. Byrnes tries to throw a lit match in her lap, and leaves subtle clues when talking to the desk clerk over the phone. Meyer Meyer types up a few hasty help notes and scatters them out an open window, a trick that ends up worse for him than the horny college students who find them. Cotton Hawes works himself up into a righteous fury, trying to convince himself it’s not nitro but water, that it’s all a big bluff. And the assortment of hostages only increases with time. Halfway through the novel, Hal Willis arrives with Angelica, a Puerto Rican beauty who stabbed a gang leader; three-fourths of the way through Arthur Brown returns from a stakeout; and near the end Carella’s deaf-mute wife Teddy arrives, wondering why her husband isn’t home yet…
It’s an impressive power struggle, shown through the eyes of a large and diverse cast of characters. Carella is the predominant character in the 87th series, yet here he’s taking a backseat to the revolving door of point-of-view detectives. Each has their own motive—Brynes weighs the needs of the many over the life of Carella, while hothead Cotton Hawes implicitly takes this as weakness; the patient and logical Meyer covertly types and releases his rescue notes. It is a loss of control—something the 87th detectives have to deal with regularly—and it’s cool to see the different characters’ thought processes, their rationalizations and plans to the hostage situation. Also, a lesson in contrasts, not only between the detectives but between the beautiful Angelica and the solemn, death-like Virginia, two different yet equally dangerous women.
Oh, and occasionally, we jump to such asides as Carella investigating a door, and a group of drunken frat boys looking for Spanish prostitutes. Somehow, the latter fits better into the plot than the former.
The best of the 87th Precinct novels are some of the best in the genre, and even the bad ones are above average, worth reading for the serious genre fan or collector. Killer’s Wedge is one of the better 87th novels I’ve read, a compelling hostage plot that teases the reader in each chapter with the hope that our boys in blue will get out of the mess they’re in. Instead, we see that while McBain’s not willing to kill his darlings, at least he’ll to do horrible things to them, well-liked characters all. While all the 87th novels are entertaining, this is the first one I found gripping—if the characters’ aren’t able to escape, things are going to creep forward toward an even larger disaster, especially when Teddy arrives. Highly recommended, a well-written novel and one of the best 87th I’ve read so far.