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Sunday, 20 March 2016

Book review - The Empty Hours

Here we have three mysteries from Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct. 

‘The Empty Hours’ concerns the corpse of Claudia Davis, who was young and rich. Detective Steve Carella works with the usual precinct detectives to crack a case that ‘had been crazy from the beginning. Some of them are like that.’ McBain believed that coincidence and a good memory help cops as much as detailed field work, and this case is a good example of both.

He had the knack of creating images and situations, sometimes bizarre, sometimes poignant, with very few words. ‘The shop was small and crowded. Badueck fitted into the shop like a beetle in an ant trap.He was a huge man with thick, unruly black hair…’ (p53)

I do wonder if he was being playful, or was it mere coincidence, when one of the victim’s cheque stubs was numbered 007. (p55) Bearing in mind that this short story was probably penned in 1960, long before the James Bond mania took hold.

He also liked to through in irony. For example when Cotton Hawes questioned a witness in a women’s hair salon. Hawes was a redhead with a white streak in his hair as a result of a knife assault. ‘… he felt like a customer who had come to have  his goddamned streak touched up…’ (p63)

‘J’ (1961) begins with the murder of a rabbi in an alley next to the synagogue. Inevitably, Meyer Meyer accompanies Carella on this case. There are plenty of amusing and fascinating asides about Meyer and Jewishness. The murderer must surely be a Jew-hater – particularly since the letter ‘J’ was painted on the brick wall next to the corpse.

Here, as elsewhere, McBain gives us poignancy: ‘His shoulders shook with the sobs that came from somewhere deep in his guts. Carella turned away because it seemed to him in that moment that he was watching the disintegration of a man, and he did not want to see it.’ (p129)

‘Storm’ (1962) features Cotton Hawes on weekend vacation to a ski resort with a lady friend, Blanche; he has booked separate rooms in the Rawson Mountain Inn. Unfortunately, the heating only seems to work in one of the bedrooms… Before long, however, he is faced with the death of a female ski instructor, stabbed with a ski pole. McBain then gives us two pages of how Hawes got to know death intimately over the years, starting as a rookie and then as a young detective. He’d vomited in the early days, but not any more; he’d seen too much. But then, and now, he still got angry. Anger that could consume him. And here, out of his jurisdiction, he has to contend with the local police who seem incompetent.

McBain’s 87th Precinct novels and stories are written in the omniscient point of view and yet have plenty of interior ratiocination on life, love and death from the regular characters. We get to know these guys, their fears and foibles, and their determination to bring the perpetrators to justice.

And that’s why he can write about any one of the precinct characters – as in ‘Storm’ – because he knows them so well.

McBain (real name Evan Hunter; he also used about six other pen-names) wrote his first 87th Precinct book in 1956 and was prolific and greatly respected as a writer. He died in 2005.

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