Friday Reviews: Calypso and Ghosts by Ed McBain

Calypso by Ed McBainCalypso

Ed McBain

A calypso singer is murdered one night walking home from a gig in the rain. In the wee hours of the following morning, so is a hooker. With the same gun. Before it’s all over, the reader is introduced to an insane woman holding a man prisoner.

I didn’t really like this 87th Precinct. It seems like it’s recycling the previous two novels. In this one, Carella worried about his faithfulness to his wife, Teddy (though never crosses any lines.) This was a major subplot of Long Time No See. And just two novels after Bert Kling’s wife is taken hostage by a stalker, So Long as You Both Shall Live, we have the roles reversed with a male captive and an obsessed female stalker. Even the presence of Monaghan and Monroe, the useless homicide detectives who do their vaudville schtick to the annoyance of Carella and the other detectives of the 87th, wear out their welcome in this one. So does Genero, the precinct’s resident idiot. Only Fat Ollie Weeks, who has become the series’s resident Archie Bunker, seems to be interesting in this one. I was disappointed.

 Ghosts by Ed McBainGHOSTS

Ed McBain

Detectives Steve Carella and Cotton Hawes respond to the fatal stabbing of a woman outside her apartment. The woman was stabbed once as she carried groceries into the building. While they start work on her death, a call comes through that another person is stabbed inside the building, this one a famous writer named Gregory Craig, who wrote a bestselling book about a haunted house in Massachusetts. The only witness? Craig’s young girlfriend, who is a dead ringer for Teddy Carella, Steve Carella’s wife.

The temptation of Carella has become a regular theme to the story at this point. Hillary Scott, the woman who could be Teddy’s twin, has a twin herself, one who eventually hits on Carella. In Calypso, it sounded like a rehash of Long Time No See. This time, however, the resemblance to Teddy Carella adds a new spin that not only messes with Carella but also resident lothario Cotton Hawes. Hawes finds the sisters very attractive but is made nervous by their resemblance to his partner’s wife. Late in the story, Carella is asleep in a motel room when he seems to dream that he gave into temptation. By the end of the scene, he’s not so convinced. So maybe the precinct’s resident boy scout may have finally screwed up.

Near the end of the story, in a scene reminiscent of Detective Rick Genero’s introduction in Fuzz, the character of Tak Fujiwara makes his debut. While I haven’t read any of the books featuring Tak, I suspect he’s there for two reasons. First, the squad needs a little diversity at this point. By 1980, Arthur Brown is the squad’s sole black officer, and his race only seems to be mentioned anymore if Fat Ollie Weeks is in the story. Second, Genero as the young rookie detective is kind of a dud. It seems like he’s supposed to be play the wet-behind-the-ears noob that Bert Kling had played up until Fuzz. However, he’s sort of become the village idiot, displacing bigoted lout Andy Parker in tandem with a smarter, more likeable bigot, Fat Ollie. However, while Fat Ollie (who gets only a passing mention in this story) is smart but ignorant with an interesting personality, Genero is little more than a punchline. Bringing in Tak off the streets is probably to correct that shortcoming. And notice that Parker hardly rates a mention anymore. Good riddance. He was an annoying character.

This one feels a bit more modern as McBain is clearly referencing The Amityville Horror, which had come a year before this, the first 87th Precinct novel of the 1980s. In one bizarre sequence, Carella may have actually seen a ghost. It not only scares Carella into paralysis but causes the psychic Hillary Scott to faint. McBain never actually says if it’s an actual ghost, but it’s enough to rattle the steely Carella. It’s a different entry in the 87th Precinct, which isn’t quite as flat as Calypso.

Friday Reviews: So Long As You Both Shall Live and Long Time, No See by Ed McBain

SLAYBSLSo Long As You Both Shall Live

Ed McBain

Usually, when Ed McBain wanted to goose the 87th Precinct forward, he would reintroduce the Deaf Man to basically act out what would now be a Michael Bay film at the expense of the bulls of the 87th. This time, however, he goes for one of his favorite hobbies: Tormenting young detective Bert Kling. Kling marries a fashion model named Augusta. She is kidnapped from their hotel room that night as Kling is taking a shower.

Steve Carella, normally the star of an 87th novel, and the tragically named Meyer Meyer have nothing to go on. And everyone in the squad, even bigoted moron Andy Parker, is giving it their all to find Augusta. Where is she?

Trapped in the apartment of a crazed man with a German accent who is obsessed with the woman in the fashion magazines. And he is very upset that Augusta would forsake him by marrying “that man.”

The case is cracked by the series’ newest regular, Fat Ollie Weeks. Weeks is slovenly, arrogant, and bigoted. Unlike Andy Parker, Weeks is 1.) smart and 2.) able to get past his own prejudices. Weeks has a soft spot for the 87th and steps into the case to give the squad a fresh set of eyes. He doesn’t know Kling, and he isn’t shy about asking uncomfortable questions. I suspect McBain was simply tired of Parker’s presence and knew the character couldn’t be fleshed out. No one likes Weeks as a person, but you can’t help but root for him.

longtimenoseeLong Time No See

Ed McBain

Steve Carella dodges Weeks in this tale of a murder of a blind couple. Jim Harrison is a blinded Vietnam vet who lives off begging and disability. He is black. His wife is white. At first, Carella suspects a racial motive. Then theft. Then…

He’s not really sure. He has to go all the way back to Harris’ s past, calling the Army and former members of Harris’s unit, even an old street gang Harris ran with before getting drafted. When another blind person is attacked, Carella worries that a serial killer is at work.

In the course of his investigation, Carella is hit on by a female sergeant whose husband is overseas. After the incident, Carella starts worrying about his ability to stay faithful to wife Teddy. To make matters worse, he has to go undercover in a massage parlor, one of those massage parlors, to question a witness.

This case is complex and twisting. Race threatens to become an issue, but the ending is much more bizarre.

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.

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.

Friday Reviews: Hail Hail The Gang’s All Here & Let’s Hear It For The Deaf Man by Ed McBain

Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here
Ed McBain

It’s really several stories for the 87th Precinct this time as Ed McBain brings all the current bulls together. Beginning at midnight Sunday morning, Meyer Meyer finds himself chasing ghosts. Literally, he is chasing ghosts when a woman calls to say her house is haunted. Carella and Hawes work their off hours as bigoted loudmouth Andy Parker is shot in the line of duty. Vertically-challenged detective Hal Willis takes rookie detective Rick Genero with him to find out why a naked hippie fell to his death from a four-story window. Bert Kling finds himself in the aftermath of a storefront church bombing, while Alex Delgado finds his skills dealing with the Puerto Rican residents put to the test. Finally, Carl Kapek goes hunting for a sexy female mugger who managed to get a Marine beatup.

All these would have been fine short stories in and of themselves, but there seems to be a lot of confusion following multiple cases. As a result, there’s not that much memorable about it. It seems as though McBain needs to reboot his series again. When that happens, you can count on the Deaf Man to return. He does in…

Let’s Hear It for the Deaf Man

Ed McBain

The Deaf Man does return, taunting the detectives of the 87th Precinct with a series of photostats to give them a sporting chance to foil his next operation, as usual, a bank robbery. He even calls Carella and Meyer to say hello and drop a few more hints. This is actually good, a little entertainment for the bulls while they deal with a baffling set of burglaries. Bert Kling lands this case and scores some help from a uniform on the beat hoping to make detective to lessen the blow of a recent divorce. He also scores with a model. Poor Bert. But the burglar is a bit odd. He gets in with a duplicate key, which not only baffles Kling, the building supers, and a couple of locksmiths, but leaves an annoying lack of evidence. The burglar also leaves a calling card, a kitten. At least until one is accidentally killed. Then he leaves a ceramic one.

As always, the Deaf Man, who serves more as comic relief this time, breathes new life into the 87th Precinct. It’s now the seventies. The World War II references are growing a bit thin, but the profanity explodes in this one. McBain is finally comfortable with sprinkling a moderate number of F bombs into dialog without being gratuitous.

Thursday Reviews: Shotgun; Jigsaw by Ed McBain

Shotgun

Ed McBain

A married couple is found, both with shotgun blasts to the face. The husband is found holding a shotgun pointed at what’s left of his chin. Suicide, right?

Well, no. A patrolman finds a spent shell that could only be ejected if the husband were alive to eject. So much for the open-and-shut case. Things get even stranger when Steve Carella and Bert Kling visit the husband’s place of business. He was supposed to be on the West Coast when he killed his wife and blew his brains out. Even more frustrating, they find a primo suspect only to find he’s disappeared into thin air.

For Kling, things get particularly sticky when his girlfriend, Cindy Forrest, explains how Kling is the basis for her doctoral thesis. Complicating matters is a witness named Anne Gilroy, whose boss refers to her as a nymphomaniac. She apparently thinks that’s a compliment, and wants Bert. Not a good time for the young detective to go astray.

This 87th Precinct takes place in 1968. The language is saltier, and the skirts are higher. In some ways, Shotgun is a throwback to earlier 87th Precinct novels where Kling is usually paired with Carella. There’s a red herring that resolves the unsolved murder from He Who Hesitates that offers a little misdirection on another murder dumped on the tragically named Meyer Meyer. It seems, though, that since Fuzz, McBain’s style has gotten looser, and there’s a more tongue-in-cheek vibe to the series. Shotgun is one of the better 87’s as McBain keeps the plot twisting with every chapter.

Jigsaw

Ed McBain

It’s starts with a double murder. One guy shoots the man who is stabbing him to death. What was it over? A piece of a photograph. Then an insurance investigator shows up, claiming there’s more to that photograph than what the bulls of the 87th Precinct have. It falls to Steve Carella and Arthur Brown to find the rest of it, as it will solve a years-old robbery case. Soon, the oddly-named Meyer Meyer and perennial man whore Cotton Hawes are drawn in as people who have, or allegedly have, pieces of the photograph start dying. A couple from natural causes, more from more violent methods.

It’s 1969, and you can tell. Hawes is all over a witness in a leather miniskirt while Brown runs up against the racial tension of the day. Arthur Brown is not Bunk Moreland from The Wire. But Bunk’s job would not have been possible without cops like Brown. Carella, however, plays more of a supporting role in this one, being the “token Italian” in the group.

There are some comedic moments, such as when Brown has to interview an aged hooker. Meyer has to endure Hawes’ attempts to bed miniskirted witnesses while no one seems to get Carella’s name right.

The City’s New York is showing in this one. Usually, it is its own entity, even with side trips from Isola (Manhattan) into Riverhead (The Bronx) and Calm’s Point (Brooklyn), but Carella and Brown take the ferry to Bethtown to question a witness. At that point, Bethtown goes from an analog of Staten Island to Staten Island itself. From that point, all I could see was New York rather than a fictional city, even when New York is mentioned in previous 87th Precinct novels.

All in all, this was a pretty cool read.

Thursday Reviews: Fuzz by Ed McBain

Fuzz

Ed McBain

The Deaf Man returns to taunt the 87th Precinct in 1968’s Fuzz. It starts with a phone call to the precinct informing the detectives that, if $5000 is not delivered to Grover Park by noon tomorrow, a city commissioner will die. The police don’t take it seriously. The commissioner is actually annoyed. They put a lunch pail, per instructions, on a park bench full of phony money, then nab the guy sent to pick it up. They lose him. The commissioner is shot dead hours later. When $50,000 is demanded to save the deputy mayor’s life, no one thinks it’s a crank call. The deputy mayor is put under police protection. This time, they pick up the guy sent after the money, a random construction worker, or so it seems, who not only seems to know nothing, but is also involved in something else entirely. The deputy mayor is surrounded by protection.

Which does no good, since his car explodes, killing him and his police protection. By now, the police commissioner is breathing down Lt. Byrnes neck, tragically named Meyer Meyer, vertically challenged Hal Willis, and Detective Arthur Brown realize they’re chasing the Deaf Man, who blew up Isola’s port a few years earlier to cover up a bank robbery. Where’s Steve Carella?

Posing as a homeless guy trying to get set on fire so he can arrest two teenaged dirt bags. Guess how well that works? It’s been a couple of novels since McBain put Carella in the hospital, and this time, it results from a painful series of Keystone Cop incidents.

The Deaf Man, who finally makes an appearance about half way through the book, is a hint that this is going to be more of a comedic action thriller.  He fancies himself a modern-day Moriarty and believes the detectives of the 87th aren’t really all that bright. Of course, the Deaf Man always manages to let his ego get in the way.

Fuzz marks the return of Eileen Burke, last seen in The Mugger, and the debut of Richard Genero, who is a patrolman in this story, but clearly on his way to becoming a detective. Like Cotton Hawes, who was created to phase out Carella early in the series (which never happened), Genero seems to be filling a role once filled by Bert Kling, who also started out in uniform. Kling has lost his fiancee, gone through a severe depression, and come out the other side almost as experienced as Carella and Meyer.

Speaking of the 87th’s resident Eisenhower look-alike, Meyer has his own personal crisis in this one. Someone’s written a book about a character named Meyer Meyer, also the title of the book. That just ain’t right, Meyer thinks, and spends part of the book trying to learn if he can sue the author.

This book is also a transitional entry in th 87th Precinct series. The detectives are dealing with Miranda rights now. Eileen Burke seems a bit more liberated than in her last appearance. Andy Parker, the resident bigot, is toned down a little bit, being just generally annoying in this one.

It seems whenever McBain wants to update the series, he brings in the Deaf Man to shake things up, then sends him away again with his tail between his legs.

Thursday Reviews: 80 Million Eyes by Ed McBain

80 Million Eyes

Ed McBain

Stan Gifford is a popular comedian. Popular, that is, to the 80 million pairs of eyes that tune into his show every Wednesday night. He is not popular with the staff of his show, not his head writer, not his wardrobe matron, not his long-suffering producer. So when Stan drops dead in front those 80 million eyes, his doctor rushes to the studio and tells Detective Meyer Meyer of the 87th Precinct that an autopsy may be in order. Turns out Gifford was poisoned. For Meyer and Carella, it’s a few days of frustration as everyone trips over themselves to make sure they aren’t suspects.

Meanwhile, Bert Kling investigates an assault on a familiar face. Cynthia Forrest, whose father was killed by the same sniper that killed Kling’s fiancee, is not thrilled to see who the 87th sent to track down her stalker. Nonetheless, the stalker has beat up a fellow officer. Kling decides to draw him out as he seems to think he’s Cynthia’s new boyfriend. The stalker manages to attack Cynthia, putting her in the hospital.

Around the time Kling draws him out, Meyer and Carella figure out how a fast acting poison no one saw Gifford take killed him in front of a nationwide audience.

It’s an interesting 87th. Kling is not so dark in this one. Indeed, in the previous 87th Precinct novel, he was nearly kicked off the force. Meyer and Carella are involved in one of McBain’s favorite gambits, a classic whodunnit.

Friday Forgotten Books: He Who Hesitates and Doll by Ed McBain

He Who Hesitates

Ed McBain

This story is not about the 87th Precinct. It takes place in the 87th Precinct, and at least four of the detectives of the precinct make an appearance. But this one is about someone with a dark secret he should tell the police. Maybe. He hopes. But first he wants to take this Puerto Rican girl out on a date.

Roger Broome is a woodware maker from upstate. (Probably the same fictional state as McBain’s fictional city Isola.) He’s about to leave town when he realizes he needs to tell the police about something that happened the night before. Only he keeps getting sidetracked. Or things keep sidetracking him. A junkie invites him to a coffee shop for a hot chocolate, where Roger meets loud-mouthed, bigoted cop Andy Parker. On his way back to the precinct, he spots McBain’s first among equals, Steve Carella and follows him as he takes his wife on a date. His nerve falters, and he manages to convince the pretty young clerk at a drugstore to go out with him in his final night in the city. And yet the police come to him. Someone’s stolen his landlady’s refrigerator. He’s questioned by Cotton Hawes (once the slated replacement for Carella and now the series’ resident ladies man) and token short guy Hal Willis. Even then, with two rather friendly (and somewhat confused, as they can’t figure out who would steal an ancient refrigerator) cops, Broome loses his nerve and keeps his own secret. This is an odd book for this series. Broome is as pale and timid a character as ever graced the pages of the 87th Precinct. He’s so nervous and naive that you hope he’s done something horrible just so someone smacks him around for being a wimp. At the same time, you hope if he did that he gets away with it.

Doll

Ed McBain

A little girl sits in her room and plays with her doll Chatterbox, assuring her that everything will be all right. Only it’s not. She can hear her mother being murdered in the next room. The death of Tinka Sachs falls to Detective Steve Carella of the 87th Precinct to solve. Carella decides to use Bert Kling as his partner. Kling has gotten on the lieutenant’s nerves. Still enraged by the murder of his fiancee four years earlier, he finds Lt. Byrnes is ready to boot him from the 87th. Carella offers to work with him, but it goes horribly wrong. Carella sends Kling home after a blow up, then has an insight that cracks the case. Only Carella doesn’t take any backup. None of the detectives know where he went, and unfortunately for Kling, that means he’s up for suspension and dismissal. Kling is replaced by the tragically named Meyer Meyer (who looks a lot like a young, put upon Ike Eisenhower). But Kling stays on the case. It is the case and the recovery of Carella, whose death was faked to send the 87th off on a wrong path (this is not a spoiler. Carella is seen alive before anyone decides he’s been killed.), that will ultimately redeem the youngest of the 87th’s bulls.

Don’t be shocked by the price in this link. Doll is out of print, and some book shops are selling through Amazon for upwards of $75 as of this writing. My copy was $3.50. Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer imprint is rereleasing McBain’s backlist slowly on Kindle and in paperback.

Thursday Reviews: Axe By Ed McBain, AC/DC: The Savage Tale Of The First Standards War By Tom McNichol, The Constant Gardener By John LeCarre

Axe

Ed McBain

Axe is Ed McBain’s first mid-1960’s offering in the 87th Precinct series, and this time, the bulls are stumped. The super of a tenement is found dead with an axe through his skull. It’s puzzling because the man is an elderly Spanish-American War vet. I found that a little jarring since the last American WWI vet died last year. But it’s 1964, so the Spanish-American War is grandpa’s war back then.

The late George Lasser is a piece of work. He’s always got a scheme to make money in the works, some flakey, some, like selling firewood to his tenants, rather good. His family, however, does not play with a collective full deck. Lasher’s wife is schizophrenic, and his son is a violent agoraphobe. Plus, they live outside Isola, so the city cops have to trek out to the burbs and deal with small town quirks. The Lasher family doctor suspects the city cops want to lock up Mrs. Lasher. The club of fellow Spanish-American War vets – only three left – just want Steve Carella and Cotton Hawes to go home and let them die in peace.

Carella and Hawes also have to deal with the neighborhood. Lasher’s building is one of several slums on the street. Despite Carella’s attempts to reassure tenants, they regard all cops as the enemy. It doesn’t help when Hawes rousts a pair of junkies in the course of questioning witnesses.

Like the previous 87th Precinct novel, Ten Plus One, McBain is coarser than in previous efforts. Mild profanity is creeping into the dialog, and while it does not contain a strip scene like Ten Plus One, there is a blatant sexuality of a different kind on display in Axe. It’s as though the loosening of restrictions on what McBain could write helped pump new life into the series.

AC/DC: The Savage Tale of the First Standards War

Tom McNichol

I’ve read this tale before doing a college paper on the life of Nikola Tesla. However, brilliant as Tesla was, he ultimately was a bit player in the revolution he started. AC/DC: The Savage Tale of the First Standards War does tell Edison’s side of the story, but the antagonist is not AC power’s inventor, Tesla. It is, instead, George Westinghouse, Tesla’s benefactor and Edison’s chief rival. But when author McNichol compares Edison and Tesla, it looks very much like the more recent (and rather subversive) rivalry of Steve Jobs vs. Bill Gates. Jobs and Gates were quirky geniuses in their own right, but their personalities and mindsets were incompatible. Edison, McNichol says, was a visual person and very stubborn, with a flare for showmanship. Tesla was a borderline autistic savant who could do entire experiments and design complex systems all in his head, but was so obsessive compulsive that he could not be brought to focus on business. For that, he had George Westinghouse, an inventor in his own right, a businessman of Edison’s caliber, but pragmatic and somewhat less egotistical. Edison could not picture the mechanics of alternating current, so he dismissed it outright, eventually making it his mission to convert the world to his dying direct current standard. Westinghouse, on the other hand, saw a way to use alternating current to reduce costs, make power stations more central, and therefore, more affordable to consumers. Westinghouse’s pragmatism and perseverance won out over the sometimes savage attacks of Edison, who was not above letting a surrogate electrocute animals in pseudo-science experiments.

As we all know, AC won out, and Edison was denied a chance to redeem DC when the Texas oil boom during World War I assured the internal combustion engine’s dominance for the next century. However…

The laptop this is written on, your cell phone and tablet, your Kindle or Nook, all run on DC. Furthermore, after the blackout of 2003, power companies discovered that using High-voltage DC (HVDC) was the best way to transmit AC power over vast distances – like across several states – as you don’t have to synch up the cycles between distant power stations. You can just step down the current and turn it back to AC power near where it will be used.

On the downside, Edison was close to a long-range, fast electric car when the 1915 discovery of oil made gasoline an affordable fuel for automobiles. Because of that, we’ve lost a century in electric car research. Range is getting better with the Nissan Leaf and several Ford models getting 100 miles a charge, but you need two hours to recharge, four if you just use standard 110-volt power outlets. Still, the breakthroughs in DC replacing gasoline under your hood are coming out of a very Edisonian startup in California.

Ironically, that company is named Tesla Motors.

The Constant Gardener

By John LeCarre

The master of the espionage tale takes on capitalism’s dark side in this tale of pharmaceutical abuse in the Third World. Tessa Quayle, an English activist and aid worker, is brutally murdered in Kenya. Her husband, Justin, a Foreign Office functionary in Nairobi, leaves for Britain and takes up the cause of learning why his wife and her closest friend was murdered.

In the beginning, the sensationalized story is a lesson in humiliation. Tessa’s companion has disappeared, and everyone assumes he was the killer while Justin was a cuckolded husband. As he digs deeper, however, he learns Tessa and her doctor friend had learned a promising tuberculosis drug, while performing beyond expectations, also has some serious side effects to be worked out. The company making it stands to lose billions if they can’t simply use Africa’s poor as unwitting Guinea pigs. Rather than lose money, they’re perfectly willing to use blackmail, slander, and murder to prevent the British government or anyone else from finding out.

One of the things LeCarre, who can paint a picture of British civil service anywhere in the world better than anyone, does is differentiate his villain from the stereotype. The drug in question is called by those who try to stop it a very good drug that still needs work. Tessa, in records left behind, says that pharmaceutical companies, despite some abuses, do good work. In fact, in the author’s notes, it’s a pharma company who provided the model for the villainous KVH that also suggested LeCarre make the drug a tuberculosis drug (which, LeCarre laments, is nowhere near ready for even the abusive testing depicted in the book). At the same time, LeCarre says, “By comparison with the reality, my story [is] as tame as a holiday postcard.” What this book is about is greed. It’s also about the ineffectiveness of foreign aid programs and apathy of major powers towards corruption abroad when it might rock the political boat at home.