Sunday, October 19, 2014

Tricks (1987)

Perils of following large series over a span of decades: sometimes you acquire the same book more than once. I read this novel from the 87th Precinct series by Ed McBain (Evan Hunter, which was not his real name either) back when it was still pretty new, but had forgotten everything except the harrowing decoy stakeout in pursuit of a serial slasher / rapist. At this point McBain is so good he makes it look easy. Set on a warm Halloween that brings frigid temperatures with evening, it's premised on goofs around the word "tricks." Trick or treat—it's Halloween. The serial killer targets prostitutes, posing as a john. A stage magician suddenly vanishes and hours later pieces of his dismembered body begin turning up. A crew of midgets in costume is holding up liquor stores, and killing clerks and bystanders. And Parker looks up a 60-year-old good-time girl named Peaches and ultimately turns a few tricks of his own. Et cetera. The centerpiece in Tricks is the stakeout and ultimate confrontation between Eileen Burke and the killer. Burke previously (no doubt in one of the books in the series) was attacked and raped on a similar operation, so here she is haunted by that. The character of the serial killer is an interesting one, reminiscent of Jim Thompson figures in the way he charms with an endless barrage of streaming jokes, which are often actually funny. It's an interesting device—a good trick, if you will—at once chilling and utterly engaging. Tricks is a real page-turner, as they say. In fact, it's one of McBain's best. At the same time, I will take the opportunity to say here, the details of violence (notably what has to be classified as his fetishizing of knives) and a too-frequent resort to rape as a plot device work to undermine interest. They are the stock devices of genre fiction, hardly exclusive to police procedurals. The fascination, such as it is, is a play on deepest fears. When people talk about exploitation drama, it's the exploitation of our basest fears I think they are talking about. McBain's regular resort to them has to be counted as a weakness. On the other hand, we are always looking for fascination too, so there's that.

In case it's not at the library.

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