Friday Reviews: Sadie When She Died and Hail To The Chief by Ed McBain

Sadie When She Died

Gary Fletcher comes home to find his wife Sarah dead, a knife sticking out of her belly. Fletcher not only has an alibi, but he’s taken great pains to avoid the crime scene while waiting for the police. He’s also gleefully happy to be a single man again. That bugs Steve Carella of Isola’s 87th Precinct. Even after a junkie confesses to the murder, clearly upset at what he’s done, Carella still thinks Fletcher did it, that the junkie only stabbed the woman. Fletcher finished the job.

Somehow, Carella manages to get a wire up on Fletcher’s mistress and his car. And Fletcher seems to be dropping hints that he may not be entirely innocent. In the meantime, it becomes clear why Fletcher hated his wife so. He knew her as Sarah, but several boyfriends on the side knew her as Sadie. And they had a lot of fun with Sadie.

This is a darker 87th Precinct novel, exploring the dark side of sexuality and adultery. The fifties motif that has run through the 87th Precinct series is rapidly fading. In fact, Carella’s frequent partner Bert Kling gets a little wistful when The Beatles’ “Something” is played on a jukebox. As for Kling himself, he’s finding the departure of Cindy Forrest from his life is a bit messier than either of them would like. It complicates his already complicated pursuit of a new woman, Nora Simonov.

Hail to the Chief

Carella and Kling, who seem to be the stars of this series now, find themselves at the edge of the 87th Precinct, where six nude corpses lie in a construction ditch. From there, the story goes back and forth between the investigation, which includes detectives from the 101st in neighboring borough Riverhead and across the River Harb in a town called Turman, and the long, rambling confession of Randall Nesbitt, the “president” of a “clique” called the Yankee Rebels. What follows is a long, complex war between three gangs in Riverhead. McBain even explains the history of Riverhead, which has no rivers and no headwaters in it. Lest ye think his unnamed city is not an analog to New York, compare Riverhead’s history and name to that of The Bronx.

What makes this story particularly creepy is Nebitt’s confession. Some have likened it to Richard Nixon’s justification for the war in Vietnam. However, Nesbitt comes off as a well-spoken version of Charles Manson. He did little actual killing, but he ordered it for the good of the city. Between Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here, Sadie When She Died, and Hail to the Chief, Kling undergoes a continuity error. In Hail, Hail, he meets and falls in love with redheaded model Gussie. However, in Sadie, he’s making moves on Nora Simonov and trying to get closure from ex-fiancee Cindy Forrest. Then in Chief, he’s contemplating marriage with Gussie without so much as a reference to either Nora or Cindy. Or maybe it’s a function of Kling’s rotten luck with women.

This story is a stretch for McBain. The detectives take a backseat to the drama that is the gangs of Riverhead. Late in the story, he even juxtaposes the final street battle with Meyer Meyer’s rape prevention talk, itself unsettling in its candor and detail. This is a very different 87th Precinct, and it’s clear McBain has left the 1950’s far behind.

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