Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Mugger (1956)

This slender novel comes very early in the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain—only the second book, and it shows in some ways. He is still figuring out the pieces and where they belong. A couple of detectives here were not familiar to me (Havilland and Temple) and others are missing. Steve Carella is reported as being on a honeymoon, but no Cotton Hawes, no Andy Parker, no Arthur Brown. In many ways the narrative is what's called in comic books an "origin" story, as we see patrolman Bert Kling take on the investigation of a murder and end up promoted to detective by story's end. An undated preface by McBain (which Wikipedia has as 2002) is something of an apology by way of explanation for these deficiencies, or oddities, and others. As a novelist, he's just evidently not quite comfortable yet, hasn't entirely worked his way in to the grooves ahead. Some of the best features of the 87th Precinct novels, I think, are the natural narrative asides he develops, and also a knack he can have, admittedly to differing degrees, of tying things together with themes, puns, coincidences, and more strategies. He got to be very artful in these books, but The Mugger is not really one of them. It has some interest for its mid-'50s setting, and there is a twist to one of the stories, but not a very good one. Bert Kling is not that interesting, let alone a new love interest for him in Claire Townsend. Interestingly, it is exactly the new love interests for Bert Kling that would come to be one of the most compelling threads in McBain's larger tapestry. There's not much to see here beyond rudiments. I recall some of the '50s books as very good so I'm not writing anything off yet except this one specifically, and even then all I'm saying is you can wait awhile on this one if you're stacking up McBains to read. Put it close to the bottom of the stack. He's still in the middle of figuring things out. From the vantage of reading many of the later ones first, you get a better sense of what will be discarded, and then some sense into the thinking that put it all together, as it evolved.

In case it's not at the library.

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