Sunday, January 19, 2014

Lady Killer (1958)

I've been reading randomly from the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain lately, hopscotching the decades, out of order, which affords some interesting perspective. The consistency of the characters—beyond the rote physical and/or biographical detail (which nonetheless serve as good cues)—is impressive and they are an interesting bunch of people too, some of whom see quite a bit of development over the years. McBain plainly knew them well. I have had obsessive infatuations with these books, so it was nice to find most of them still pretty good, sometimes remarkably so. Reading out of sequence also provides a glimpse of the broad scope, occupying six distinct decades, from 1956 until 2005. McBain is better later at constructing more intricate interconnecting plot threads, but he is plainly working through the fundamentals of police procedurals and other points of his craft in these early shorties, which are often very good. From 1956 to 1960, he was turning them out at the rate of two or three a year. In a 1994 preface, McBain relates how he wrote Lady Killer in a matter of days in the summer of 1958, bringing it in right at the minimum "180 pages." It focuses on a case involving a message that arrives at police headquarters from someone announcing, via words and letters torn from printed material, that he will kill "The Lady" at 8 p.m. that night. It thus becomes a profile of a precinct mobilized on a single effort, told basically tick-tock fashion. It starts in the morning of one day and concludes that same evening, some 12 or 14 hours total. As always, the "police routine is based on established investigatory technique," with detectives Cotton Hawes and Steve Carella foregrounded for this one. Bert Kling wanders in seemingly from another book and is enlisted. Meyer Meyer has some scenes. There is time aplenty, as always in this series (which ultimately ran to more than 50 books), for personal digressions, tedium, distractions, joking around, and frustration as the larger points are pursued. Another strength of McBain is his ability to evoke a creepy vibe seemingly at will. That's here with a curious prostitute operating as "The Lady." Apparently she has a specialty that involves crying, and she switches in and out of character at the drop of a dime. I could do with less of the action scenes—they dominate in the smaller confines of this very short novel, and they're dull. I could also perhaps complain about how conveniently some of the clues turn up. It's still a heck of a good romp, McBain style, the masterful raconteur spinning out his threads and reeling them back in. It's hard to stop reading. It's just another one of those.

In case it's not at the library.

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