Ed McBain's long-running series of mystery novels spanned fifty years and over fifty books. Based in the fictional city of Isola (with its eerie similarities to New York), McBain's conscientious cops spent thousands of pages chasing down every sort of villainous behaviour. From 1956 to 2005, readers were introduced to serial killers, money laundering, granny dumping and more.
McBain proved a savvy and adaptable writer - not only giving readers the latest in the substance of crime fiction, but also the style. This impacted everything - the details (the police officers' salaries, political events), the methods (from card catalogs full of missing persons to the DNA database), to the crimes (muggings to cocaine smuggling) to the overall tone and voice of the books. Over fifty years, his characters change from innocent to jaded, the crimes become more dark and more detailed; the whole feel of the city changes from decade to decade.
Overall, there's no question that this is one of the - if not the - best series of crime fiction. With over fifty books, there are certainly some patches of mediocrity, but as a whole, the series shines through. Over the past week, I've had a chance to dip in and out of it again, so a grab bag from the 87th:
Lady Killer (1958): One of the early ones, this book focuses entirely on Carella and Hawes. The two detectives receive a note that 'The Lady' will be killed tonight. With a city full of ladies to choose from, there's a lot of floundering about to be done. The book is a bit more procedural than most - the detectives tap their informants, brush up on fingerprinting, mull over some criminal psychology and even use a sketch artist. As a side effect, there's actually very little chance for the reader to solve the mystery themselves - instead, they're just along for the ride. There's some entertaining nods to 1950's sensibilities involved. Hawes hits on everything in a skirt (or, more daringly, those ladies in pants). A good one.
The Heckler (1960): This book introduces the Deaf Man, who would rapidly become the criminal nemesis of the 87th Precinct. The Deaf Man is their total antithesis - he's callous (almost inhuman) and a methodical planner, while the detectives rely on emotion, legwork, and (invariably) luck. McBain tries not to make the Deaf Man a sympathetic character (at least, at first). The criminal mastermind is, frankly, kind of cool. He wins at poker, makes women want him through the force of his superior mind alone, is a crack shot, and gives rousing speeches on the laws of probability. He's also a monster, with no regard for human life. In later appearances, he becomes more and more overtly sadistic - perhaps changing with the times. Still, the Deaf Man is the star of this book. In The Heckler, the 87th is entirely clueless, and the eventual resolution (such as it is) of the case is entirely reliant on luck. Again, the book is entertaining enough (and the Deaf Man new enough) to make it a captivating read, but as a mystery, it lacks the punch of the better books in the series. It also marks one of the many occasions where Something Awful happens to Carella, one of the nicest detectives in fiction.
Fuzz (1968): The Deaf Man returns - but so does everyone else. McBain takes the entire cast out of the box in this one. While the Deaf Man begins another reign of terror, the precinct also investigates a robbery and a series of attacks on the city's homeless population. The ending (in which all three plot threads combine) is slightly contrived, but the book as a whole is one of the most exciting, with something happening on every page. (Also, Something Awful happens to Carella).
Widows (1991): Something Awful happens to Carella again. This time, his father is killed. While that investigation (one of the rare cases that the reader follows outside of the 87th) is underway, Carella's squad tackles another murder, as a hormonally-supercharged man has been killed, leaving behind a trail of blond lovers, wives, ex-wives and daughters. Finally, Eileen Burke is joining the city's Hostage Negotation team, in one of the more interesting subplots. Widows is one of the more tonally-interesting books. Horrible things happen to Carella, and the reader is still being exposed to the horrible things that have happend to Eileen. But the murder cases are both best described as darkly comedic. Tense, hysterical laughter; moments of tragic-yet-entertaining self awareness; bizarre characters; and even the occasional puppy. Although nothing 'nice' happens in Widows, McBain manages to infuse the entire book with enough dark comedy to keep the reader from contemplating suicide (as opposed to, say, Calypso or Lightning from the early 1980s).
Money, Money, Money (2001): Most of the final (2000-2005) books were characterized by an exceedingly-clever, self-aware style, in which the long-established characters took a back seat to intricate plot devices. The method of storytelling also shifted away from the police and on to the other (short-lived) characters. Money, Money, Money is a good example of this style. Carella and Fat Ollie Weeks both serve as hosts to the book, but the story actually follows the criminal cast around from scene to scene - a drug courier, a drug dealer, a petty burglar, etc. etc. The action is recounted from a dozen different points of view, with the police serving as a framing device. Money, Money, Money also has Something Awful (actually, quite a few Somethings) happen to Carella, who, for the first point in the series, is starting to feel a bit put-upon. Fortunately, this swiftly blows over. Carella is an excellent and noble everyman, and should really avoid the depressing thoughts (even after being savaged by lions).