In my last post, I mentioned that my favorite genre used to be mysteries. And when you love mysteries, there’s nothing better than to find a really prolific author you really like. Back in my college days, I was lucky enough to come across the 87th Precinct novels of Ed McBain (a pseudonym for Evan Hunter — he wrote dozens of other novels as well.) Like Teresa, I’m finicky about reading a series in order, and I’m something of a finisher, so I took my time with these: McBain started writing them in 1956, and came out with one, two, or sometimes even three of them a year for decades. There were over fifty of them at the time of his death in 2005, and they are an absolute treasure trove of mystery, police procedural, character study, wit, dialogue, and city life.
Each of the 87th Precinct novels centers around one main mystery and the two-person detective team out to solve it, but the entire squad buzzes with life. Detectives have families, home lives, drinking problems, and birthdays. They worry about bald spots and high heels. They seek counseling and join the NAACP. They take their kids to school and interview suspects. Not a single person has the luxury of being a cardboard cutout or a caricature — not even the bad guys.
These novels take place in the city of Isola, a kind of mirror of New York. The city takes on a life of its own, and as you read thenovels, you get to know the neighborhoods: Diamondback instead of Harlem, Riverside Heights instead of the Bronx. The problems change as the decades move forward, and of course the characters change, too — new detectives join the squad, and others quit, or, sometimes, die. Others are constant through the entire series. I won’t tell you which are which.
One important thing to note about these novels is that, even though they begin their life in the 1950s, they never take cheap shots at African-Americans, immigrants, women on the force, or any other minority group. McBain writes tough police procedurals that understand a cop’s life (at least I assume they do; they feel real to me) but never stoop to bigotry. It’s refreshing.
I just re-read two of these, almost at random, after picking them up in a used bookstore. Both were as excellent as I remember and stood up wonderfully to the test of twenty years’ absence. In Doll (1965), a famous fashion model has been brutally stabbed with her daughter in the next room. When Detective Steve Carella gets too close to the answer, he finds himself kidnapped by a brunette who is used to being a victim and is horribly excited to have the upper hand for a change. He must try to find answers in the most vulnerable place imaginable, as his partner (who has been removed from the case) and other detectives try to find a solution. In Lullaby (1989), a couple comes home on New Year’s Eve to find their babysitter dead and their baby smothered. Finding the reason for these deaths involves a single mother, a drug dealer, a burglar, and an adulterer — none of whom even know each other.
I fell in love with these books all over again. They reminded me of how interested McBain is in people — not just the detectives, but everyone, down to the smallest character. His dialogue is great. His descriptions of the city are vivid and fascinating. While you don’t have to read these in order, it pays to — the relationships build on each other, and you get to know the characters really well after a while. It made up my mind to pick these up once in a while and read them from time to time. They are just so thoroughly enjoyable, and if you like police procedurals at all, they come highly recommended.