Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Killer's Payoff (1958)

Another early title in the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain—the 6th, to put a number on it—and another with an introduction written in the early '90s. Was it a matter of renewing copyrights, or perhaps a good old-fashioned PR push of some kind? I'm not sure, but they shed an interesting light as McBain used the opportunity to settle some old scores, and here he is pointed. Cotton Hawes, known by his red hair with a white streak, was forced on him by the publisher. But guess who the readers turned out to love most? That's right, Mr. Bigshot Publisher, Steve Carella. Et cetera. Fair enough. McBain has a point. His heart was never in Hawes (whose name derives from Cotton Mather, by the way) and he always loved Carella. In this one, Hawes formally gets the lead in a humdrum whodunit about the murder of a blackmailer. Along the way he beds a chick or two. Steve Carella and Meyer Meyer are well to the side. The love story of Steve Carella and his wife Teddy, who is deaf, is stretched out and distorted by the odd time disconnections of the series (they are forever in their late 30s or early 40s, even as the decades pass us by), but it is the heart of the series, its main narrative arc. That makes Killer's Payoff more notable as an outlier in the series, as McBain attempted to force-fit a character for whom he had little affection. Armed with the information from the later introduction, Hawes's sexual encounters almost feel sarcastic, they are so farcically empty. Cotton Hawes "falls in love," fucks a woman, and then she is gone. That's his style. Later he thinks he might be "falling in love" with another woman. It's so mechanical as to be robotic. Another series semi-regular, Bob O'Brien, also shows up here, but he is much more knuckly and tough than the woebegone character I think he becomes. In short, Killer's Payoff is somewhat unfocused and oddly toned, with a mystery that is suited more to the cozy style than police procedural. McBain, in some conflict with his publisher, is very much still feeling his way along here. One of the lesser efforts in the series.

In case it's not at the library.

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