Friday Reviews: Bread and Blood Relatives by Ed McBain

Bread by Ed McBainBread

McBain shakes up his 87th Precinct series once more by introducing one of its best known characters in this 1974 installment. Steve Carella and Cotton Hawes have one of bigoted Andy Parker’s cases dumped in their laps by a distraught warehouse owner who suffered a fire. Seems Parker did the minimum work required, never filed a report, and went on vacation. Carella, who punched Parker in the squad room, has to go visit Parker, whose idea of a vacation is sitting around in his underwear swilling beer.

Carella and Hawes begin pulling strings and find themselves crossing paths with Fat Ollie Weeks, another bigoted cop. Unlike Parker, Weeks is actually, yanno, good. Between the three of them, they uncover shady real estate dealings in one of Isola’s worst neighborhoods, a call girl ring, and a case of insurance fraud involving a German company.

This novel is a bit more light-hearted than the previous installment, Hail to the Chief. Hail was politically charged and captured the tension of the early 1970’s perfectly. Bread moves the 87th Precinct firmly into the 70’s, however. The one-time World War II vets of the squad are now implied to have served in Vietnam, one of the problems with putting characters on a sliding calendar. But it’s the mid-1970’s, and when even the most benign prejudices surface, we feel the black characters’ discomfort and humiliation more. Plus, Parker has become obsolete at this point. At this point in time, Parker would already face civil rights charges simply for his behavior toward Detective Arthur Brown.

Hence, Ollie Weeks. Ollie is a bigot, but he’s more of an Archie Bunker type vs. Parker, who belongs in a stereotypical Southern town. Weeks’ bias is not so much deliberate as it is ignorant. He apologizes to one suspect when he realizes the man is probably clean, but is genuinely puzzled when Carella calls him out for being a lout. In other words, Parker is a cardboard cutout; Weeks is complex and even tolerable. Plus McBain seems tired of having an idiot working among his cops. The hapless Rick Genero fills that role nicely.

Blood Relatives by Ed McBainBlood Relatives

If Bread had a lighter tone, Blood Relatives goes dark. Very dark.

We open with a bloodied Patricia Lowery staggering into the 87th Precinct to announce that her cousin was raped and murdered before her eyes. The killer than tried to do the same to her. Meanwhile, a patrolman finds said cousin lying dead in the rain, obviously violated and dead. What follows is a twisting, winding tale of obsession, incest, and misdirection. At first, Patricia describes an unknown man, then accuses her brother, who had an obsession with his first cousin. Eventually, Bert Kling and Steve Carella find the dead girl’s diary, which reveals yet another suspect. The ending is disturbing, surprising, and tragic.

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