After going over the top with The Heckler, Ed McBain decided to get real with his two follow-ups, See Them Die and Lady, Lady, I Did It. He has to. Trying to top a bank robber blowing up Isola’s port to cover his tracks is just sheer folly best left to Ian Fleming. See Them Die tackles gang violence from an early 1960’s perspective. Pepe Miranda is both a hero and a scourge to the Puerto Rican community surrounding the 87th Precinct. On the one hand, he constantly trips up the police, staying one step ahead of them. On the other, he’s a murderer who bring shame to the neighborhood. So when Pepe is found one sleepy Sunday morning holing up in an apartment just a few blocks from the precinct, a quiet Sunday morning turns into high drama and a sort of blood sport, with neighborhood denizens alternately rooting for Miranda’s escape and his death.
The racial overtones are played out first in the story of four gang members trying to make a name for themselves. They plan to kill a boy for the crime of saying hello to the gang leader’s girl, who doesn’t seem to know she’s his girl. Pepe’s standoff disrupts their plans. It also plays out in the interplay between Detective Frankie Hernandez, who is from the neighborhood, and bigoted loudmouth Andy Parker. Parker cannot seem to stop reminding Hernandez that he’s Puerto Rican or assuming that all Puerto Ricans are the same. In a previous novel, the 87th’s first among equals, Steve Carella, even punched Parker out in the squad room over it. In this one, Lt. Byrnes hands Parker’s ass to him when he goes to far.
But if racial tensions drive See Them Die, even more controversial issues drive Lady, Lady, I Did It. We start with Bert Kling, the 87th’s youngest detective, talking with his fiancee, Claire Townsend, on the phone. She has already begun the seduction that will hopefully culminate that evening at Kling’s apartment. Shortly thereafter, the squad gets a call from a bookstore where someone’s gone in and shot several people, killing five. One of them is Claire.
The squad rallies around Kling, and Carella and Meyer end up chasing down clues that might not be what Kling wants to hear about his late fiancee. It ends up leading them to an off-the-books abortion – Keep in mind this is 1961, over a decade before Roe v. Wade – that Claire helped to arrange and cover up. However, in true McBain fashion, the actual killer is not revealed until after this thread, more about Claire’s career as a social worker, leads nowhere.
It seems The Heckler allowed McBain to step up his game. Whereas The Heckler was a straight thriller, McBain has opted to go more for depth, rounding out the roster of detectives beyond Carella and Meyer with these two novels. Of course, we’ve yet to see Eileen Burke in a sizeable role, and Fat Ollie Weeks hasn’t shown up. Plus, Parker is glaringly absent from Lady, Lady, I Did It, leaving one to wonder how Lt. Byrnes ultimately dealt with him. Equally intriguing, what does the death of Claire Townsend mean for Bert Kling?