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.