Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Eight-Seven

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of The Eight-Seven (book club edition of The Mugger, Killer's Choice and Doll, circa 1967).

I have a totally unfair reason for waiting so long to sample Ed McBain. In the early 1990s, Universal was having trouble finding workable, complex scripts for Columbo, but they had the television rights to some of McBain's 87th Precinct series. Now, you'd think, only making two and maybe three TV-movies a season, they could get some writers who'd enjoy working with Columbo's popular formula, but no, not content with mostly abandoning the trope of pitting Peter Falk against a big-name, classy guest star each time, they jerry-rigged a couple of 87th Precinct treatments and stuck the character of Lt. Columbo into these characterless, charmless stories that would have worked equally well as a two-hour episode of any other cop show of the day. "No Time to Die" and "Undercover" are, by some distance, the worst episodes of that series, even worse than the one where they cast the great Rod Steiger in a bit part and gave the villain role to George Wendt.

A little time, distance, and objectivity eventually led me to acknowledge that very little of what was wrong with Columbo after 1992 was Ed McBain's fault.

The 87th Precinct series - there are 54 of the darn things - stretched from 1956 to the death of McBain (real name Evan Hunter) in 2005. If these three books are any indication, it was a terrific series, and while they've not been very popular or commented upon in some time, they're really solid police procedurals that reflect their times very well. I was amused by a couple of references to Dragnet putting an unbreakable image of police work in civilian minds, and also to somebody being dismissed as a naïve youngster because he looks like Elvis Presley.

Most of the time, when you find these old book club omnibus editions, they seem to have been assembled at random. This collection reprints the second, fifth, and nineteenth(!) in the 87th Precinct series, but it forms a character arc for Detective Bert Kling. He's introduced in The Mugger as a patrolman, established in Killer's Choice as a rookie detective, and fumbling so awfully in the wake of his girl friend's death in Doll that his lieutenant has concluded that promoting him had been a mistake. Incidentally, I love the two-word spelling of "girl friend." As with "goodby" or "good-by" in John D. MacDonald novels of the period, it's a reminder that language is always evolving.

These are pretty breezy reads, despite the taut and narrow focus of each novel. I enjoyed the very detailed look at procedure in the 1950s and 1960s, and occasional neat and experimental prose that's used really effectively. The Mugger even uses second-person narration for a section to get things started. The first two books just sing with the tone of the 1950s, while Doll's realistic use of hallucinogenic drugs feels appropriately grounded in the 1960s. I love finding fiction from a period that reinforce our contemporary view of that period and being able to say "Yes. This is why we think the 1950s had this feel. It's because books like these were produced then, and contributed to the zeitgeist, and are still accessible both as artifacts and as reminders."

This isn't a series that I'll be able to completely collect immediately, owing to cost and availability, but I will definitely keep my eyes open for more of them. McBain / Hunter was a fantastic talent, and worth waiting to discover.

1 comment:

Tam said...

I think the Ed McBain 87th precinct books are fantastic, they're formulaic (because police-work IS formulaic) but never repetitive and the characterisation of the cops, the people they meet and the city as a whole is some of the best crafted genre writing I've ever seen. It's probably stretching it a bit to call the individual books literature, but taken together they give a unique illustration of how New York and more generally life in urban cities has changed over fifty years which doesn't really get the credit it deserves. And it's also acted as a template for pretty much every tv cop show ever, especially Hill Street Blues and Homicide. The best run was probably during the late 80s / early 90s. Lullaby, Vespers, Widows, Kiss and Nocturne are all great, but really there aren't many dud ones and even the weaker ones are interesting for the period details... Incidentally his other series about a lawyer, Matthew Hope, is a bit more hit and miss but some of them are really good too.