Sunday, May 22, 2016

Killer's Wedge (1959)

This is an ultra-shorty novel in the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain (Even Hunter, which was not his real name either). It's short even for the times, when McBain was turning them out at the rate of three a year, well under 200 pages in mass market size. But there's still room for both an A story and a B, and some pretty fancy whodunit plotting as well. In the A story, a woman shows up at the precinct station and takes all available detectives hostage with a gun and (maybe) a bottle of nitroglycerin. I know—it's unbelievable—you have to move through the skepticism. She's there to kill Steve Carella, who is out investigating the B story, which is nothing less than a classic locked-room mystery. A rich man has hanged himself in a room with no windows and a door that can only be locked and unlocked from the inside. Even so, Carella has a hunch that it's murder. Meanwhile, back at the police station, the detectives try to outwit the woman holding them. They tend to come up short a lot. The real point of these scenes is the chance to see how the squad works together (doggedly) and also to show the events that happen in a typical day around the 87th Precinct headquarters. Even though it's an extraordinary situation the detectives are still capable of easygoing banter. The hostage-taker does what she has to in the face of the various attempts by the detectives to foil her. At one point she guns one of them down, and he's on the floor awaiting the end of the siege and medical attention from then on. As an exercise, it's pretty neatly done, balancing the two stories off one another. High marks for the juxtapositions. Still, the hostage scene is just a little too Andy of Mayberry in terms of how easily the detectives are taken control of. As for the locked-room mystery ... wut? It's just crazy. There's even a butler—it's in the wealthy section of the 87th Precinct, you see. Honestly, as mystery fiction goes, these can try my patience sometimes. At the same time, as mystery fiction, they're pretty well done. I can't quite follow along with the technical aspects of the crime as committed—because, yes, Carella's hunch about the locked-room is on the money. A man found hanged in a room locked from the inside was not actually a suicide. Who knew? Steve Carella, that's who. Yes, as always, he is the hero. On the personal side, this is the one when Steve and his wife Teddy first learn of her pregnancy. It's such a good marriage, the one that they have.

In case it's not at the library.

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