Double Review: Doll and Lullaby

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.

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12 Responses to Double Review: Doll and Lullaby

  1. Marguerite says:

    I’ve read one of them in the past, but your review makes me want to start reading the series. Where would you suggest one start?

    • Jenny says:

      Well, if I were starting over again myself, I’d start at the very beginning with Cop Hater. That’s because I’m a bit picky about reading series in order. But if you want to start with a good one near the beginning but without wasting time on some of the very early detectives who don’t last, I might start with The Heckler (1960) or Ax (1964). Let me know what you think!

  2. Anthony says:

    Memories: I read these voraciously in my teens; recall Steve Carella with fondness. I’m probably way off the mark but always had the sense that McBain was the inspiration for “Hill Street Blues”.

    • Jenny says:

      I’ve named computers after Steve Carella, a favorite character of all time. Nice to know you share this taste of mine.

  3. gaskella says:

    I’ve been meaning to start reading the 87th Precinct series for years – I have the first, and several others and your post has given me a wee jolt to get on with it – I’m going to put Cop Hater towards the top of my bedside TBR.

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, do! And let me know what you think. It’s a little rough compared to his later style, but I read it fairly recently and it’s still very enjoyable.

  4. Deb says:

    I enjoy the 87th Precinct novels–although I haven’t read as many as you have and certainly not in order. Evan Hunter was an incredibly prolific writer who wrote different kinds of genre fiction under various other names. He wrote (as Evan Hunter) the first “adult” book I ever read, MOTHERS AND DAUGHTERS. I mean “adult” in theme and treatment not that there was a lot of sex in it (although there were some rather mild sexual situations). It followed the lives of several women over the course of a number of years and featured the gradually-revealed “shocking” revelation (which remains one of my favorite literary devices). I still have the beat-up paperback copy that I first read in 1970 and I occasionally take it out and re-read it–and I’m never disappointed.

    • Jenny says:

      I think the only thing I’ve read of his under his real name is The Blackboard Jungle. But Mothers and Daughters sounds great. I cannot believe how prolific he was — nearly a hundred novels in about fifty years. And they’re good, too!

  5. Gavin says:

    I have never been drawn to read “McBain” but you have really made these books enticing! I will check my library, I’m sure they have many of them.

  6. Emily says:

    A good police procedural is so satisfying, isn’t it? Love what you have to say about McBain/Hunter’s attention to character and setting here – will have to give him a try at some point!

    • Jenny says:

      I don’t know why police procedurals are so satisfying, as you say, but when they’re good, they’re good. Put one on your list. They read quickly and make for excellent light entertainment.

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