Monday, November 16, 2015

The Pusher (1956)

SPOILERS STOP READING NOW. This third book in the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain is also the third book in McBain's original three-book contract. By the time he was actually writing it he already had a contract for the next three. But the road had been bumpy for a young writer, breaking in, as documented in a series of prefaces (in this case, an afterword, to avoid the spoiler) which he wrote for them in the early '90s, as they were republished with some fanfare. The forces that be at his publisher did not want him to marry off the hero, Steve Carella, for example. They thought he had to be an eligible bachelor. Later in the series—very next book, if I'm not mistaken—Cotton Hawes was introduced exactly to fill that role. For this one, McBain decided rather dramatically to kill Carella now that he had married and couldn't any longer be the hero. You catch a little whiff of tantrum in this decision. And that is what this book exists to deliver, decked out in the strange garb of murders occurring around small-scale heroin dealers. The 87's own Lieutenant Byrnes bizarrely turns up with a high school kid who's also a mainlining heroin addict. None of it makes a lot of sense, though maybe that's something to do with '50s youth and heroin addiction. It's only the scene where Steve Carella comes face-to-face with his shooter that the intensity level indicators peg the meters. It turns out it was all a misunderstanding and everybody wanted Steve Carella alive after all, not least McBain himself, who got orders from the publisher to turn the frown upside-down on the face of the would-be widow, and literally to turn those tears of sorrow into tears of joy instead. Done and done—one and a half paragraphs added, as I count it, and the lifelong hero of the whole thing escapes by the skin of his teeth. In terms of whether you need to read it, well, no, not so much, unless you're intending a real deep dive into the whole series. Basically, the first six are about organizing it for long-term stability. It's fun to read the work of a writer who clearly thrives on putting himself out there in terms of making it up as he went along. Here the dramatic punch everything is calculated for is based on something that didn't happen after all—oops, do-over style. Give McBain credit though—he got much better at wounding and killing beloved characters. This is basically a trial balloon that fizzled. Even so, count me with McBain and everyone who appreciates that Steve Carella lived on.

In case it's not at the library.

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