Saturday, May 28, 2016

Ax (1964)

It's bloody murder in this edition of the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain. And no surprise, the murder weapon of interest features a blade, as anyone reading the entire series should know well what a fetish knives grew to be for McBain. This is not the first he's used them, but the lumberjack's tool of the trade takes the story well beyond the pale. It's another shorty, under 200 pages, so it mostly focuses on the one case, a tenement janitor found in the basement of his building brutally slain (yes, there are details). Of more interest to me are the civil rights undertones to the action, which fit with the time frame. But it's still dated. The novelty is manifest in the attempt to view Negro characters as fully equal and deserving of respect, which slides over too easily into displays of patience and indulgence. The characters mean well but I'm less sure about the author, who somehow conveys the idea it's all a bit ridiculous. This made me wonder if McBain, like his and my hero Jack Webb, wasn't at bottom a right-wing crank. I suspect it's so, based on his treatment here of civil rights as vaguely comical and other factors across the series. But a cursory Internet search didn't turn up much and in a way I don't want to know. With an uneducated Negro in Ax as one of the "obvious" suspects, and his treatment that way by characters such as Steve Carella (as usual, the main detective), attempting to show equality, it's too often slightly wince-worthy. The story is ridiculous too, with shady hoods and crap games, a family of extreme eccentrics for the victim's family, and some sort of scam involving firewood (and fireplaces?!) for tenants in the tenement. Carella is out front, with Cotton Hawes loose-limbed at his side. For as silly as it is, it's a reasonably tight story. It's #18 overall in the series, a point at which McBain and everyone was beyond counting, but I thought I'd mention it. A lot of what makes McBain good is there in place. The month is January—he knows how to elaborate and use the moods of the weather. The case is brutal, and hard to solve ("hard to solve"). And the detectives are good men—actually, there is a bad cop in this one. Carella can't stand him, of course. On the personal side, we get a scene or two in the warm Carella household, with Teddy and the twins. A good man, a good home, but a cold and brutish world, into which he must go. Careful with that ax, Eugene.

In case it's not at the library.

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