Saturday, November 21, 2015

Widows (1991)

Widows marks yet another turning point in the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain, introducing a major development with the death of Steve Carella's father. (One of these days I'm going to slip and finally make the typo of "Steve Carell," who probably should never play him in a movie.) For storylines percolating in the background, I liked his wife Teddy attempting to reenter the workforce, but, well, the '90s is when we fell in love all over again with injustice, and forensics, so why not the plight of the American justice system as seen from McBain's 87th Precinct? There's only one problem: McBain's biases. Carella's father owns a bakery and is killed in an armed robbery. The stick-up men are black, and McBain saws away somewhat unpleasantly at Tawana Brawley (by name), Al Sharpton (as "The Preacher"), and the Central Park jogging case. Except, oops, what we know now compared with what McBain knew then, is that the latter was actually a case of a serial killer, who was not black, rather than a gang of black teens, out "wilding" (a made-up term). It's interesting, of course (and annoying), to encounter McBain's knowing tone of certainty—a matter of common sense, which only the naïve could deny, that this is the kind of thing African American teens are up to. I know McBain's certainty comes from the same place my own acceptance of the conclusions came from, namely the false confessions. So I was as fooled as McBain, I'm not exempt, but it's his certainty itself in light of how wrong it is that gives me pause—it seems to affirm so many racist assumptions. For those reasons, I'm not that interested in the storyline with Carella's father. And I'm starting to lose a little patience too for the storyline with Eileen Burke (decoy specialist, rape victim, girlfriend of Bert Kling), her therapy and recovery and so forth. I like the idea of it. I like the idea of fictional characters using psychotherapy to understand and recover from traumatic events. And I like the long, strong narrative arcs across multiple books. I'm just not convinced McBain has that much insight into Eileen Burke after all. Perhaps on balance all good, but I'm no longer sure I always trust his point of view, as the author. The main case in Widows is also pretty rote—a lawyer and his various Barbie doll sex mates are turning up dead. Whoever could it be? The 87th Precinct novels are getting to be pretty big affairs at this point in the series, 300 pages or more. But it's still a main case, and maybe one or two others. Most of the bulking up is due to the increasing focus on the personal stories, for better or worse. With Widows, I can't decide which it is, but the personal stuff is unfortunately starting to feel a little tired and predictable.

In case it's not at the library.

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