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Friday 29 December 2017

Book review - Romance

Ed McBain’s 1995 novel of the 87th Precinct, Romance, is up to his usual high standard, a bravura mixture of police procedural, social commentary, slick characterisation and humour.

It begins with Detective Bert Kling attempting to fix a date with Sharyn, a black Deputy Chief Surgeon. He’s concerned about the difference in their rank, not the difference in their colour; she’s merely wondering about the colour issue. They agree to meet. It’s a phone call, and we’re in omniscient point-of-view mode so we get the emotions of both characters; it works well. So, a budding romance...

Next, we’re in an interview between a detective and a concerned redheaded actress who has been receiving threatening phone calls. Soon, we realise that these two characters are acting in a play called Romance. It isn’t a very good play; subsequently, the actress in the play is stabbed. McBain has fun depicting the ‘arty types’ on both sides of the script, with plenty of back-stabbing.

‘Carella wondered if the smile was an actress’s trick. Or even an actress’s tic. He realised all at once that with an actress, you could never tell when she was acting You could look into her eyes from now till doomsday and the eyes would relay only what she was performing, the eyes could look limpid and soulful and honest, but the eyes could be acting, the eyes could be lying. (p188) Of course the same could be said of an actor; but Carella is busy interviewing an actress…

Actress Michelle Cassidy isn’t happy with the play or its author. She turns up at the 87th Precinct to inform Kling she’s been receiving threatening phone calls, just like in the play. Later, she is stabbed, though not fatally… Great publicity when the play is mentioned on the front page of the newspapers and in TV newscasts; then a murder happens and it’s a publicist’s dream though a nightmare for the detectives of the 87th.

Many of  regular the 87th Precinct gang figure in here, too: Carella, his wife Teddy, Ollie Weeks (‘the bigot of the universe’), Meyer, Lieutenant Byrnes, and Monroe and Monaghan (the homicide duo)…

Strange, how times change. ‘Nobody was quite ready to take offense back then…’ (p171) This was about something as ‘innocuous’ as calling women ‘girls’. I wonder what Carella would make of the offense brigade today on anti-social media? And as hinted at earlier, there’s evidence of racial tension as well as anti-Semitism. Maybe times don’t change that much, after all…

Great observation throughout, to be expected. ‘The dog immediately began barking at Kling, the way all little dogs do in an attempt to convince people they’re really fierce German shepherds or Great Danes in disguise.’ (p223)

It’s good to meet these characters again after a lengthy absence. Not everything is what it seems; there’s a twist on the obvious twist. The story neatly ends with Kling and Sharyn no longer on the phone but in a romantic - and sensual - situation.

Even Hunter (Ed McBain) died in 2005, aged 78.

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