Sunday, March 16, 2014

Hail to the Chief (1973)

Apparently everyone felt entitled to write novels about Richard Nixon along about the time Nixon started his second term, or anyway Ed McBain did. He is the author of the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals, and this, in that context, is his Nixon novel. Hail to the Chief strains after a Vietnam allegory (as opposed to Watergate, for which it might have been a bit early) and it mars the procedural. It's the usual fun visit with the 87th Precinct characters, the usual procedural basics, and it's not bad as political satire. It's broad as the side of a barn—the main gang leader in this garbled tale of an urban gang war, for example, is named Randall M. Nesbitt (note initials) and frequently refers to himself as "the president." What's that two-by-four imprint on your face? I surmised all this as I went—I have to think it's the first thing people knew about it going in, especially back in the day. But I happened to be blissfully ignorant at first. Though something wasn't quite right, it still mostly worked like the usual 87th Precinct tale for me. It starts with the investigation of a notably brutal mass murder, and—no surprise—as long as it stays close to the investigation it does OK. The gangs are where it falls apart, especially the whole crew headed up by Nesbitt, the "Yankee Rebels." There are pretty good passages about how best intentions ("stopping this war") can quickly escalate violence with good old unintended consequences. On the other hand, on another level, I appreciate the scorn McBain obviously has for Nixon's foreign policy and general manner (via Henry Kissinger), and also that it's focused on Vietnam more than Watergate. That's kind of different and refreshing. But it's not why I read 87th Precinct novels. But I'm glad McBain got it out of his system—come to think of it, a lot of the books in the series are him getting something out of his system, and his willingness to experiment and try things is what keeps the series fresh, a good match for his natural storytelling style. This one features Steve Carella (long since the main "hero") with Bert Kling. Kling's personal story is advanced with a proposal of marriage to model Augusta Blair. For the most part Hail to the Chief is a lot of puffed-up buffoonery about three gangs at war (white, black, and Hispanic) and a lot of really foolish slaying—which is nice to see made so explicitly foolish. But this is one for fans more hardcore than me.

In case it's not at the library.

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