Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Heckler (1960)

The Heckler is an important volume in the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain because it marks the first appearance of the Deaf Man. He is referred to here only as "the deaf man," but the ambition to make him a supervillain on the order of Sherlock Holmes's nemesis Professor Moriarty is already there. We know that partly because one of the detectives, Bert Kling, happens to be reading a Sherlock Holmes story, "The Adventure of the Red-Headed League." That story, in turn, has explicit parallels in The Heckler, which involves a man calling two dozen owners of small businesses and threatening to kill them. After some investigation, it turns out all the businesses are adjacent to banks, jewelry stores, and other high-value targets. It's all a little complicated, an interesting if way overly busy caper scheme. Eventually it grows to ludicrous proportions, with the 87th Precinct tied up in knots with bombs, fires, and rioting mobs—an insanely imagined scene of terrorism. Our hero is Steve Carella (no Cotton Hawes in sight) and he takes some severe punishment—more grist for later developments in the series. The Heckler is a little too much in the caper mode for my taste, losing sight of its procedural moorings by the last third as it indulges an impossible level of mayhem. That's balanced a little by the Carella drama. McBain as always is a first-rate raconteur. It's a good enough read. If McBain has to go supervillain on us, I appreciate that he looks to Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes for his guideposts. It could have been Lex Luthor. "The heckler" is the term the detectives use for the threatening caller. At one point the Deaf Man uses the alias L. Sordo, for "el sordo," which is Spanish for "deaf man." That's cute. But the climax really strains credulity, involving some two dozen exploding and incendiary bombs going off in places like stadiums full of people, and other crowded places. The recent Paris attacks by comparison look more like people shooting off cap guns. I appreciate that McBain could conceive the scenario more than 50 years ago. Most people then were imagining nuclear strikes and holocausts much more than coordinated terrorist bombings. You have to give it to him on that point.

In case it's not at the library.

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