Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Killer's Choice (1957)

Another early entry in the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain, Killer's Choice is short, tight, and focused, covering two separate cases. McBain is still sorting out and trying things here. With the title, for example, he abandons the specific criminal type of the previous three (The Mugger, The Con Man, The Pusher) and embarks on a set of four which will include the word "killer" (Killer's Choice, Killer's Payoff, Lady Killer, Killer's Wedge). More significantly it's also the debut of Cotton Hawes, which, as McBain explains in an introduction written in 1991, was a requirement of the publisher. According to McBain, the publisher believed heroes had to be single (and male, of course) in order to appeal to women readers, who did not like married men. Interesting conventional wisdom. John Lennon's first marriage was kept secret during the heights of Beatlemania for similar reason, setting aside all the obvious differences between rock stars and fictional homicide detectives. It has to be a '50s artifact—that thinking is retired now, right? At any rate, it explains a lot about why Hawes—he of the red hair with the white streak from the knife wound—remained generally the most uninteresting and undeveloped character for the length of the series. On autopilot, he is a competent investigator and an empty womanizer. It also explains how Steve Carella, married or no, publisher edicts or no, remained the de facto hero of the long-term series. That is, assuming a certain pugnacious stubbornness to McBain's own character, which I think is a safe assumption. In Killer's Choice, McBain is still exercising his right to kill off characters summarily. Roger "We Hardly Knew Ye Either" Havilland gets it here. The main case takes on the usual shape of a mystery story. A woman turns up dead in a liquor store and the investigation reveals she had secrets. As in life, there are mysteries everywhere. My fascination with police procedurals, in the first place, is because that's the way most mysteries are solved. McBain gives himself more latitude here to dispense with red herrings and cute twists and such. The twists and turns are often more convincing when they're not cute. Publisher demands notwithstanding, McBain is starting to pick favorites among his characters, which I count as a good thing. He likes—no, he loves—Carella and Carella's wife Teddy, obviously, but Bert Kling is already getting a fair amount of play too. McBain hasn't figured out much of what he's going to do with Kling yet, but he's a person of interest. I'd call this one of the good ones from the '50s.

In case it's not at the library.

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