Forgotten Book Friday: King’s Ransom, Give the Boys a Great Big Hand, The Heckler By Ed McBain

I started reading Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series a few years ago, starting in the beginning with Cop Hater.  In the beginning, Steve Carella was just one of the detectives. Meyer Meyer was a punchline. A black detective murdered in the first novel resurfaced a couple of books later as Detective Arthur Brown.

I made it through nine 87th Precinct books before now, the last being ‘Til Death. Along the way, McBain attempted to kill off Steve Carella, only to be told by his editor that he couldn’t kill off “the hero.”  Yes, McBain saw 87th Precinct as what today would be a Hill Street Blues. His editor saw it more as Law & Order: Isola.  Never mind that both shows were well into the future.

Since then, another editor told McBain to ditch Carella for the younger, handsomer Cotton Hawes to bring the sexy back. Only another editor nixed the idea, and Hawes became one of the boys.

Which brings us to books 10, 11, and 12.  Book 10 is King’s Ransom, which has a lot more in common with Law & Order than Dragnet, McBain’s stated inspiration for the series. In it, a little boy is kidnapped when he is mistaken for the son of Charles King, a shoe company executive on the verge of the biggest stock deal of his life. Turns out, the bungling kidnappers have snatched the chauffeur’s son by mistake. Their solution? Press King to pay the ransom anyway.  King refuses, since it’s not his kid.

King would fit right in with today’s modern Enron and Lehman Brothers types, putting profit ahead of human life. McBain paints him as a lousy sociopath, when the pressure of the kidnapping weighs on King.

King’s Ransom is the most predictable of the three, and 10 books in, the 87th is starting to read a little tired.

But if Ransom is tired, the follow-up, Give the Boys a Great Big Hand is damned punchy. “The boys” are the detectives of the 87th Precinct, including Meyer, Carella, Hawes, Puerto Rican detective Frankie Hernandez, and bigoted moron Andy Parker, whom Carella punches in the teeth.  And the hand? It’s a literal severed hand. McBain’s tongue is stuck to the inside of his cheek in this one, but it’s clear he’s looking for something new to do with his creation.

And he finds it with Book #11, The Heckler.  It starts out innocently enough. Someone is crank calling poor David Raskin, a garment factory owner who grew up with Meyer’s dad.  In the meantime, Carella catches a body in Isola’s Grover Park, a naked man shot at point-blank range with a shotgun. Bizarre, yes, but McBain introduces a new element, a criminal mastermind known only as “the deaf man,” so named because of his hearing aid.

The deaf man is a modern day Moriarty, planning to set off a series of explosions to cover a bank robbery. He succeeds, but is undone by his own miscalculations. The ending ups the stakes for the 87th Precinct, but today?

The deaf man would not escape.  He wouldn’t even have a chance to have his bombs built. Homeland Security would have picked up the paper trail and packed him and his cohorts off to Gitmo before you could say “Osama bin-Laden.”

However, the sharp contrast between the fictional Isola of 1960 and New York City of 2001 only makes the story more interesting. Several antagonists are accused of “making war against the people of the state,” which is as close to a definition of terrorism as anyone will come to in the pre-JFK era. Today, the deaf man’s bombs would be fodder for 24-hour news, political hysteria, and probably a poorly-thought-out military response. (As always, I blame the civilians in charge since I’ve seen a lot of eye rolling at the Pentagon since about 1999.)

Interestingly enough, the copy I read of The Heckler was released in 2002, a year after 9/11. A whimsical deaf man who only manages to kill one person “off camera” wreaking far worse havoc on a city like Isola (at various times the same size or larger than NYC) is a lot easier to stomach than a fanatical millionaire hiding in a cave. Unlike previous 87 Precincts, this one has a cinematic feel to it, more a thriller than a procedural. And despite the horrific way the deaf man tries to cover his tracks, this one is a lot more fun.

Forgotten Friday Books is a weekly multiblog feature started by Patti Abbot.  This week, you can catch FFB over at Broken Bullhorn, Richard Robison’s blog.

Green Energy

There’s a lot of wrangling over green energy. I hear stupid things like Americans are “addicted” to oil vs. “Oh, there’s plenty of oil. It’s all just a communist conspiracy.

Here are a few things to consider.

  1. There is one inescapable fact about energy technology over the past 150 years: Technology trends inevitably toward less stinky. Coal stinks, prompting the original green energy technology: The internal combustion engine. No one’s ever gotten black lung from gasoline.  No one ever got it from diesel. In the meantime, what coal is still burned is scrubbed down to CO2, which now can be pumped into the ground.  As a result, the old technology stinks less.  But electric cars stink even less. Yes, they move the pollution factor to electric grid, but it’s a lot easier to replace a handful of power plants with something cleaner than it is to replace several million vehicles.
  2. The term “oil addiction” lacks intelligence. A heroin addict has a choice.  They might be psychologically or physically disadvantaged in exercising that choice, but the whole concept of rehab is built around that the idea that you go someplace to deal with the consequences of bad choices. Do you honestly think I’m going out of my way to burn gasoline? I drive a friggin’ Neon when I really want a Jeep Liberty. I want room. I get 32 mpg highway instead. When will I buy an electric car? When I can afford it. That’s not addiction.  That’s necessity.
  3. Really, people, some of you need to quit offended when people bad mouth the oil companies. And no, your stock portfolio is not justification for excusing some of the oil companies’ dumber moves, like taking a massive dump in the Gulf of Mexico. Yes, I own Exxon stock. If I’m forced to use the product, I’m going to take some of that money back. Eventually, I’ll dump Exxon, but for now, I’m making them pay for the privilege of being the only thing on the menu.  “But isn’t that hypocrisy, Jim?”  No. Hypocrisy is whining that wind power is a communist conspiracy (If you’re paranoid about communists in 2011, you really need to go look at a calendar.  Joe McCarthy’s been dead for over half a century.  Let’s keep him that way.) or not taking a bicycle on a 34-mile commute is being selfish (No, it’s not being stupid, especially in this climate). I really don’t care if Ted Williams one day is tooling down the road in a Prius only to blow past the former CEO of BP holding a cardboard sign saying “Will drill for food or money.”  I don’t. Especially since that guy will never ever starve anyway. So who cares if they go under. Do you really miss Enron?
  4. Change happens.  Get over it.

Presidential Reading

I’ve been reading about the presidents in order for the past two years.  It started after watching the HBO miniseries John Adams, which prompted me to run out and get the book by David McCullough.

The early presidents, all Founding Fathers, were easy to read about. There’s little controversial about Washington, Adams, or Jefferson that sparks the sort of wrangling a sitting president today would has to endure.  And yes, I’ve thrown my share of rocks at George W. Bush. Now that he’s gone, it gets damned annoying to hear the same leveled at Barack Obama, especially when the same amount of ignorance pervades today as it did during Bush’s term.

But I’m not up to the contemporary presidents yet. In fact, I just finished up with Millard Fillmore, which brings me to my point. After Jackson, and until you get to Lincoln, the talent pool from which we draw our top leadership starts to get diluted. For instance, George Washington was complicit in creating not just his own myth, but defining the yardstick by which all future presidents would be measured. The man had to balance his ego with the need to protect the fragile republic he’d just helped found and organize. Adams may not have been all that spectacular as president – He was obnoxious and disliked, you know – but then the presidency was merely the feather in the cap to a career any man of his day would die to have. Jefferson was our first ideological president, though thankfully he quickly learned how to balance ideology with the pragmatism reality demands of a leader. Madison and Monroe’s biggest accomplishments were actually behind them when they reached the White House, Madison the architect of the Constitution and Monroe the old Northwest’s biggest champion. As for John Quincy Adams, he may have been one of our greatest diplomats in his youth and most accomplished congressman in his old age, but his presidency was doomed by the force of nature that was Andrew Jackson. And love him or hate, if Andrew Jackson had never been born, America would have had to invent him.

So where’s that leave us as I look toward reading about Franklin Pierce, our first alcoholic president or James Buchanan, most likely the first gay president? Let’s have a look at the men and the books I read about them.

  • Martin Van Buren: Maddy Van is often ignored by history. After all, the worst financial collapse prior to 1929 occured on his watch. But Van Buren, aka The Little Magician, was quite the skilled politician.  That didn’t make him a great president, or even a good one, but like so many other presidents who inherited a bad economy from their predecessor – Think Hoover, Carter, and, to some extent, George HW Bush, Van Buren was doomed to be a one-termer no matter what. He is the earliest example of James Carville’s rule of electoral politics: It’s the economy, stupid.For Maddy Van, I read Robert V. Remini’s Time-Life bio. Serviceable and quite informative.
  • William Henry Harrison: The Whigs, forefunners of the modern Republican Party, needed a hero to run against Van Buren in 1840. They found one in Jackson’s contemporary, Harrison. Tippecanoe, as he was nicknamed after an Indian battle shortly before the War of 1812, was an early governor of Indiana before its statehood, a diplomat, and a civic leader in the booming river town of Cincinnati. All this prompted the Whigs to nominate the elderly Harrison in both 1836 and 1840. Harrison’s first official act in office was to drop dead barely a month into his term, allowing the nation to test the Constitution in the matter of vice presidential succession.
    For Harrison, I made the joke that a president with such a short term would probably warrant a pamphlet for a bio.  Close. Local author Sue Ann Painter wrote a book less than 100 pages about the ninth president that pretty much summed up his life, mainly focusing on his time in Cincinnati, where he founded the nearby village of Cleves and even took a job in the county clerk’s office to shore up finances on North Bend, his estate on the Ohio River.  (North Bend is now a village, one might even consider a suburb of Cleves.)
  • John Tyler: Not the brightest man to ever occupy the White House, Tyler did, however, wisely make his way to Washington when someone whispered in his ear that Harrison might not survive his term in office. Tyler, however, did not expect to attain the presidency for some time, which would give Harrison time to establish his agenda and poke perrenial runner-up Henry Clay in the eye. (Harrison lived long enough to do the latter, and Tyler repeated the process less than a week in office.)  However, “His Accidency” so alienated the Whig Party that Tyler became something the nation hadn’t had since Washington passed the baton to Adams in 1797: an independent president.  Tyler was a schemer, an unrepentant slave holder, and had a tendency to hide things that probably could have been done in the open with fewer consequences.  As such, the Democrats did not trust him, and Tyler soon found himself out of a job when his term expired.
    For him, I downloaded the Kindle book His Accidency, which details Tyler’s belief that he was the heir to the Virginia Dynasty (Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe), as well as his unease upon learning Harrison was not in the best of health.
  • James K. Polk: Polk is derided for being a slave holder and for being a political scion of Andrew Jackson. He is often praised, however, for voluntarily serving only one term and being a political scion of Andrew Jackson. The former governor of Tennessee completed (in the open, no less) the annexation of Texas, the war against Mexico, and the addition of California to the union as a free state. For his day, not a bad president for a slaveholder, but he was still a slaveholder.
    For Polk, I read the excellent biography Polk, which shows America in the post-Mexican War, pre-sectionalist phase of its history. Polk illustrates what a man can do as president when he doesn’t have to worry about reelection. It also gives a foreshadowing of how James Buchanan let the country fall completely apart by showing him in Polk’s cabinet as an indecisive worrier more concerned with his own presidential ambitions than Polk’s agenda or the business of the nation.
  • Zachary Taylor: This guy was a slob, borderline illiterate, and politically unmoored until someone whispered in his ear that he might make a good president. He might have, in spite of his shortcomings, had he lived. Taylor won the presidency based on his reputation made during the Seminole War in the 1830’s and as a general in the Mexican War. However, Taylor, like Eisenhower a century later, wasn’t even sure which party he would go with until the election season began in earnest. Perhaps, had he lived, that might have been his greatest strength. For Taylor, though a Kentucky slaveholder, did not cotton to some of the South’s more hostile attitudes toward the expansion of slavery or the radical ideas of nullification and secession.  It’s quite likely that, had Taylor survived past 1851, the Civil War would have occured ten years earlier and been much shorter. Taylor made no bones about it. He would have readily marched on South Carolina if they seceded or pressed the nullification (a dubious political concept where a state can override federal law).
    For Taylor’s bio, I started out with a contemporary biography clearly written by a partisan. 150 pages into, after the author once again praised a long, poorly-worded report by Taylor to the War Department as being a paragon of crisp, clean writing and spartan prose, I switched to a children’s book and blew through it while making dinner one night. The children’s book covered the same information, but without the fanboy hyperbole or the nauseating passages of Taylor’s dull prose.
  • Millard Fillmore: The president famous for being obscure. (Actually, Chester Arthur is more obscure. Maybe Rutherford Hayes.) Fillmore was Taylor’s running mate in 1848. The men did not actually meet until 1849, after Taylor was inaugurated. Before then, Fillmore was a typical career party hack whose main accomplishment was the abolition of debtors prisons in New York. Like Tyler, Fillmore took over for a deceased predecessor and proceeded to offend the Whig Party. Whereas Taylor was a slave-holder who nonetheless put the Union above all, Fillmore, like his two successors, was a northern appeaser, doing whatever he could to make everyone happy only to offend everyone.
    Like the original Taylor bio, I read a partisan screed by Ivory Chamberlain commissioned by the American (or Know-Nothing) Party. The Know-Nothings bear a lot of resemblance to today’s Tea Party in that they were outraged by what they saw as the end of America being brought about by two (or rather three) complicit major parties. However, the Tea Party’s axe to grind is the maxing out of the national credit card, which has even their detractors nervous. The Known-Nothings, on the other hand, were proud, card-carrying bigots. Chamberlain’s aggrandizing tome excuses Fillmore’s shortcomings – he was a dull public speaker and writer – as virtues. In reality, Fillmore was a capable bureaucrat, but no one you’d want guiding the nation through its darkest hours.  Looking at the last twenty years, the man lacked the intellect and exuberance of a Clinton, the brash decisiveness of a George W. Bush, or the cool intelligence of an Obama. The man was just smart enough to get himself a job, and too much of an appeaser to do much else.

Which brings us to Pierce and Buchanan, the next two presidents I’ll read about. Both men inspire apathy and yawns.  Then comes Lincoln, a man who can prove difficult when searching for an objective biography of him.  I did find one.

The real challenge will come when I get past Eisenhower. JFK, LBJ, and Nixon all inspire controversy and conspiracy theories. Sorting out the speculation (and let’s be honest, outright fiction) from that mess will be difficult. On the other hand, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Bush, Sr. all published diaries and letters.  Clinton?

Really, mention Bill Clinton in any room and try and find a neutral opinion about the man.  Go on.  I”ll wait. And maybe after we’re well into Obama’s successor’s term, you might find one.  George Bush? Hey, like I said, I was throwing some of the rocks. And my opinion of him since he left has changed. Now it’s Obama’s turn to endure the public opinion whiplash. (If his approval rating ever tops 50% again, it’ll be the economy, stupid.) Maybe I’ll find an objective book about Bill Clinton, but Bush and Obama? If Bush ever publishes his own letters.  Quite likely, he would be the guy to write a book about Obama. The man studiously tries to stay out of his successor’s way, which means George Bush understands a lot more about what a president needs to do his job than 90% of the people trying to become president.

After all, there are only five men in the world who know what the job is really like.

My Town Monday: It’s Soggy Here

April in Cincinnati is usually cool, but sunny. Easter is especially bright and warm, unless it falls in March, when it’s cold and wet.

Not so this year. The ground is saturated, and the floods that came and went last month are now back with a vengeance. The latest round of rain came in Thursday morning in the wee hours with high winds and severe storm warnings. Somehow I slept through it, but Nita and AJ did not.

Since then, normally dry Cincinnati has had almost six inches of rain, which won’t stop until at least Wednesday.

While Cincinnati is not the dryest place in the country, it’s often a lot dryer than this.

The Flood of 2011 continues…

More at the My Town Monday blog

The Dead Zone By Stephen King

Stephen King asks the burning question, “If you could go back in time to 1932, would you kill Hitler?”

Actually, I’d just bludgeon the bastard until he was left a drooling moron and kill Goebbels instead. But then King didn’t ask me.

Instead, he wrote The Dead Zone, where high school teacher Johnny Smith awakens from a five-year coma and comes out of it psychic. For Johnny, it’s a strange time to lose five years of his life, not that there’s any normal time. Johnny takes out pretty Sarah Bracknell to a county fair and wins an unusual amount of money betting on the Wheel of Fortune. The night was to end with Johnny and Sarah spending the night together, but Sarah gets a bad hot dog. So Johnny sees her home, promises to call her in sick the next day, and grabs a cab. And that’s it for Johnny. The cab slams into a drag racing car, killing the driver and leaving Johnny comatose. When he awakens, he has an unwanted talent for predicting the future.

In one of King’s first Castle Rock stories, Johnny is called in to find a serial killer who just murdered a fourteen-year-old girl. Johnny picks up some sickening vibrations and manages to catch the town’s deputy sheriff, Frank Dodd (later a supernatural villain in Cujo). He’s approached by a tabloid editor to do a sleazy column that would fleece readers. Johnny doesn’t even need to write the column. When Johnny responds by shoving the editor in the mud, the tabloid responds by slandering him.

But it’s Greg Stillson that scares Johnny. During the 1976 election season, Johnny decides to see if his talent will let him see who will be president by shaking hands with the candidates as they pass through New Hampshire. (Jimmy Carter gets a jolt in one appearance.)  Stillson, who is equal parts Ross Perot, Morton Downey, Jr., and Carrot Top, unseats the perennial Republican Congressman. Johnny shakes his hand at a rally and gets his own jolt. He sees Stillson over a decade later taking the oath of office as president, then only a couple of years later, the destruction of the world in a nuclear apocalypse triggered by a mad, grinning Stillson. It doesn’t help that King has already depicted Stillson as a bat-shit insane psychopath on a power trip.

With his late mother’s religious mania echoing in his head, Johnny seems to think it’s his mission to stop Stillson. He asks himself the question of killing Hitler in 1932 over and over again and realizes that yes, he would.

The Dead Zone posits another situation: What if you fell asleep while Nixon was president, Vietnam raged, and Jimi Hendrix was alive, only to wake up after Watergate, Vietnam, and on the eve of punk and disco?

It would be very strange, but you wouldn’t expect anything less from King.

Smashing!

My first short story, published way back when in 2001 in the original Plots With Guns, is now available on Smashwords, which means you’ll be able to buy it on Nook, Sony, Google, Kobo, and iBooks in a couple of weeks.

“A Walk in the Rain” is the first ever Nick Kepler story and has our intrepid insurance investigator trying to put right the violent end of a childhood friend’s bad relationship.

Intro by Anthony Neil Smith, who originally took the story.  And now you can get it here!

For those of you on Kindle, you can download it here.

The Lineup Day 21: Crime And Perception

I did a recent read-through of the latest edition of The Lineup, the poetry collection edited by Gerald So and Reed Farrel Coleman, among others.

The poems range from the violent to the simplistic,  a pair of burglaries and Ken Bruen’s elegy for a petty thief.

One passage, however, struck me as I started to read, this one from Michael Casey’s “mitrailleur”:

maybe the crack security team
would stop him
he were entering the building that way
but leaving??

The poem tells of a man who sneaks what he steals out of the plant where he works. The narrator wonders if people saw him going in the way he came up, if he’d have been busted.

When crime succeeds, it’s usually because of perception. When it fails, it’s because the perpetrator does not think through the consequences. He doesn’t consider the evidence he leaves behind. He commits the crime, especially violent crime, in a moment of passion. Con artists depend heavily on perception and misdirection fleece their victims.

The best example of this in fiction is in Goodfellas. When most mob wives are confronted with search warrants, they are abusive to the federal agents and police officers, which, ironically, is a big red flag that they’re hiding something. Lorraine Bracco welcomes them, makes them coffee, and asks if they need anything while they do their jobs. Ray Liotta comes home to an intact house and endures fewer prying eyes from the feds for the better part of the movie.

Perception.

In the real world, despite being written about extensively and under the watchful eyes of the FBI, crime boss Vincent “The Chin” Gigante walked around New York City in his bathrobe having conversations with trees and fire hydrants. Mob journalists knew Gigante was the godfather. The feds knew. The jury only knew that this elderly Italian man as an addle-brained ex-boxer suffering from dementia.

Criminals succeed when they know how to manage their smoke and mirrors. Of course, the downfall comes when someone can penetrate the smoke and mirrors.

But then that’s the drama we all love to watch unfold, isn’t it?