Sunday, August 17, 2014

Calypso (1979)

The 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain (Evan Hunter, which was not his real name either) generally maintains a decent level of quality across the 50+ individual novels and stories that compose it. But Calypso is fairly weak sauce. The premise is promising, the main case involving multiple murders, including the death of a colorful calypso cum rock star guitar player figure. But it relies again on a villain who is insane—batty, bonkers, tetched, mad as a hatter, fruitcake in cloud cuckoo land, etc. You really need to be careful with this in any fiction, because it is license to do anything and has to be used responsibly, and that's hard. The more we find out about our dastardly one in Calypso the harder it is to believe. In fact, I stopped believing it almost right away. I still enjoyed mixing it up with the familiar characters—including yet another appearance by the notable Fat Ollie Weeks, who is much more of a regular than I had recalled—but not much is advanced there. It's focused almost entirely on the single case, but longer than many of those, and feels a bit bloated. I liked something about the idea of using calypso in the reggae era. McBain has the first victim decked out almost like Jimi Hendrix, with an act, as described, reminiscent of Bob Dylan (and/or Arthur Lee). This had to be projection on my part because nothing at all comes of any of that. Plus, thinking about it, the series city of Isola is obviously New York, and what was happening in New York at the time—some of the most significant forerunners of rap and hip hop, among other things—still had some calypso elements floating around (e.g., "The Tide Is High"). But the calypso theme dies with the victim in the first scene, that whole side of the story quickly devolving to pitiful corpses and clichés about prostitutes and small-time scamming independent record labels. Again, I never believed any of this. In fact, really, what I think this confirms is the '50s style and attitudes so deeply embedded in McBain, the impressions formed then still holding sway near the dawn of the Reagan era (and the eclipse of the reggae era). You might do worse in this series but it can't be by much.

In case it's not at the library.

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