Sunday, June 30, 2013

M is for Ed McBain

I recently read two Ed McBain novels: The Mugger and The Pusher. These are the 2nd and 3rd in a series, following the first book, Cop Hater. Since my theme for the Crime Fiction Aphabet 2013 meme is police procedurals, I had to include Ed McBain and his 87th Precinct novels.

Ed McBain was a pseudonym of Evan Hunter (October 15, 1926 – July 6, 2005) . This pseudonym was used for his series of novels about the cops in the 87th Precinct in Isola (a thinly disguised New York). Evan Hunter was born Salvatore Lambino; he legally changed his name to Evan Hunter in 1952. Per Mike Ashley, in The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Modern Crime Fiction: "The name Ed McBain was concocted to cover the author's less 'sophisticated' material, keeping his more significant pen-name, Evan Hunter, for serious mainstream novels."

I had read nothing at all by Ed McBain until about a year ago, when I read Cop Hater. I enjoyed that novel, which was fortunate since I had already purchased over ten books in the series in anticipation of reading the whole series ... eventually.

The titles of the books I read are fairly indicative of the crimes investigated. In The Mugger, the 87th Precinct is plagued with a mugger who only attacks women, always hits them, and always leaves them saying: "Clifford thanks you, Madam." Eventually, a murder occurs which could be connected. In The Pusher, a very young drug addict has committed suicide. But there is some evidence at the scene that is confusing to the cops following the case.

The 87th Precinct books give the details of an investigation, but along the way we get glimpses into the policemen's lives. The policemen involved seem like real people, not idealized versions of detectives. Some are bullies, some are more dedicated to looking for the truth. Throughout The Mugger, McBain intersperses items from the investigation: fingerprint sheet, police forms, even a map of a crime scene. As the crime is investigated in The Pusher, the complex steps to evaluate the small amounts of usable evidence found at a crime scene are described. Yet even though this may seem dry, the result in each case is a very entertaining book that moves at a brisk pace.

I am not a great fan of long doses of descriptive prose in a novel, but some of McBain's descriptive passages are just extraordinary. And the miracle is... he does not overdo them.

Cop Hater is set in the summer, during a heat wave. The oppressive weather figures in the crime and the investigation. When reading these two books back to back I noticed that The Mugger is set in the fall, and The Pusher is set in the winter.  This might have been because The Pusher starts with a bang that you cannot miss:
Winter came in like an anarchist with a bomb.
Wild-eyed, shrieking, puffing hard, it caught the city in cold, froze the marrow and froze the heart.
The wind roared under eaves and tore around corners, lifting hats and lifting skirts, caressing warm thighs with icy-cold fingers. The citizens blew on their hands and lifted their coat collars and tightened their mufflers. They had been enmeshed in the slow-dying lethargy of autumn, and now winter was upon them, rapping their teeth with knuckles of ice.
Both of the books I read were comparatively short in length, each under 160 pages. Reading these two books was like reading one of the longer books I have read recently. I understand that the later books were longer, but I am enjoying these shorter ones while they last.

On a personal note, in the 80's and the 90's, I had a co-worker who loved the 87th Precinct novels. She knew I liked mysteries, and she was always suggesting that I read the latest book he had published. And I was always declining to try the series. Now, I look back and wish I had listened to her. On the other hand, now I have the whole series ahead of me and a lot of books and entertainment to look forward to. 

The Crime Fiction Alphabet is sponsored by Mysteries in Paradise.  Please visit this post to check out other entries for this letter.

Other reviews here:
At Tipping My Fedora, Sergio is reading and reviewing the series in order.
At Yet Another Crime Fiction Blog, Keishon reviews The Pusher.
At Confessions of a Mystery Novelist..., Margot puts the spotlight on The Cop Hater.

These books are also submitted for the Vintage Mystery Challenge in the Leave It to the Professionals category, which includes books featuring cops, private eyes, secret service, etc.

19 comments:

  1. Thanks Tracy for the post. Recently, I read my first McBain: Fuzz, and am eager to read more of him.

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    1. Neer, I think there are 55 books in the series and I want to read them in order. It will take a long time.

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  2. Tracy, I discovered Ed McBain two years ago and I still have to read many of his books. I agree, he writes at a brisk pace and without complicating things. Thanks for the reviews of these two books that I haven't read either.

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    1. You're welcome, Prashant. I hope to read one every month or so, and still it will take me a while to read them all.

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  3. I bought some second hand Ed McBain novels last year. Yet to read those. I developed CSR and my reading stopped for a few months. Your post reminded me that it is time to pick those novels! I am ALL for police procedurals!!

    Here is my CFA - M is for Martin Edwards post.

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    1. Gautami, Glad you are back to reading now. Police procedurals are my favorite sub-genre, although I am discovering how different they all can be.

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  4. Tracy, I have a couple of these at home, but will probably hold off from reading until my other series are done. It would be nice to go from 1 to 55 though! Have you tried his Matthew Hope books? I haven't but it seems a more manageable prospect.

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    1. Col, I do have one of the Matthew Hope books but have not tried it yet. Yes, it would be more manageable. But I prefer policemen to lawyers. I should fit it in soon for comparison.

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  5. I'm reading Ken Bruen right now and one of his characters LOVES the 87th Precinct novels. It's so funny. Anyway, I haven't read The Mugger yet but I will very soon. Your review is making me anxious to get back to McBain. I love his social commentary. His books follow a pattern and even though there are numerous characters in the story, I can keep them straight and he only features a couple of them anyway. I also enjoy the side romance between Teddy and Steve Carella. They are brief moments but memorable. Still need to read Cop Hater though and I wish I did read these in order :sigh:

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    1. Keishon, Is that the Brant series? I am going to get to that one soon. I almost mentioned in my post two other authors who have characters who read Ed McBain (Stuart Kaminsky and Bill Crider). McBain was quite an influence on other writers.

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    2. Yes, it's the Brandt series. I am enjoying the first book.

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  6. Tracy - Oh, what an excellent choice for the letter M. I've always loved the wit in those books, as well as as the plots, character development and so on. Great stuff!

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    1. Margot, yes, he is perfect for the theme police procedural. I have been amazed at how much forensics are in his early books.

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  7. Another classic mystery writer. I read a few of his 87th Precinct mysteries years ago and they were quite good. :)

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    1. Scott, I am enjoying them. Not at all what I expected. I wish I had some old paperbacks by McBain with better covers. I will be looking for some.

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  8. I'm a big fan of this series too Tracy, and like you am relatively new to it. I like the slightly deadpan tone of the book. Very enjoyable indeed.

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    1. Sarah, I have a hard time articulating why I like the 87th Precinct novels. I have to work on that because I am going to be reviewing a lot more of them, over time.

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  9. I read one of these books every few years, and each time I quite like them, but don't feel inspired to tackle the whole series - maybe next time I try one it will do the trick...

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    1. Moira, it is such a huge series. Sort of intimidating. I know I will never get to them all, but I am definitely enjoying the early ones. With the Agatha Christie books, there are a lot left for me to read but since there are stand alone books and shorter series, it does not seem so intimidating.

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