Monday, May 18, 2015

The Con Man (1957)

The Con Man is another early entry in the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain, and it's a pretty good one. A lot of the best of McBain's writing is already present—the basic thrust of the procedural, multiple storylines only tangentially related, inspired riffing around an idea captured in the title, and the characters we have come to know and like. In fact, the afterword McBain wrote for it many years later explains how this was actually a critical juncture for the detective Steve Carella's prominent position across the series. This may be the place where he became the de facto hero of it, along with his wife Teddy, who is beautiful, deaf, and communicates by signing—interesting and remarkable for a major character, especially then. I think what I like best, however, is the loose, swimming rush of words as McBain finds a way to make his rolling language fit within the strictures of genre writing. He knows how to do this, obviously—the setup for the climax, for example, is carefully constructed to let a scene of tremendous suspense develop and unfold naturally. On the surface, even so, he maintains the jokey, goofing tone that helps propel it and make it even more of a pleasure to read. The idea of the "con" is played with every way he can, continually and allusively, describing classic cons, including new twists as plot points, and working the metaphorical territory to good effect as well. I haven't thought that much of the '50s entries so far in this series, but this is a good one. Maybe even a good place to start for anyone who has never read him. You could certainly do worse.

In case it's not at the library.

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