Friday, May 27, 2016

The Empty Hours (1962)

The Empty Hours is a collection of three long stories (or novellas)—one of the things I like best about Ed McBain, author of the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals, is a kind of restless, experimenting, creative energy that drives his work. These stories feel churned out in some kind of frenzy, chasing down the spasms of ideas. The first, "The Empty Hours," is a smoke-and-mirrors mystery story involving insurance claims and mistaken identities, featuring Steve Carella and the usual gang of detectives. It probably could have been woven into more typical 87th Precinct novels, as either a main case in its own right or one of the smaller ongoing side cases, a strategy that became more common as the novels became fatter in the '70s and especially the '80s. There's not a lot to it but it's done efficiently. (It also seemed familiar, which means either I read it before, or it was incorporated somewhere else in the series, maybe even ported over to the Matthew Hope series, the other main McBain series, which I'm probably not going to deal with.) The second story, "'J,'" could also have been integrated into a typical 87th Precinct novel, though it might not have been so easy to work with. It seems better designed to be a stand-alone. Also, the mystery-story aspect in this one turns out to be a bit of a cheat. But it has particular resonance for the character Meyer Meyer about his Jewish identity. The third story, "Storm," focuses on Cotton Hawes on a skiing vacation, and is probably the most obvious stand-alone of the three. In many ways it strikes me as emerging from character sketches on Hawes, who remember was intended as a late addition, insisted on by the publisher—a swinging bachelor type to replace Carella after Carella got married. According to McBain, the publisher considered it essential for the hero to be single and thus "available" to women readers. A strange idea but common enough for the times. John Lennon of the Beatles was also expected to keep his first marriage secret during Beatlemania in the mid-'60s for similar reasons. Hawes was always one of the weakest characters in the series, largely because McBain's heart may never have been in it, and he's even weaker going solo without the others (babe in arms or no, and of course there is a babe in arms—he's a swinging bachelor on a ski vacation). The mystery story is not bad, however, and I like the ski resort setting pretty well too. The Empty Hours is a bit of a change of pace for the series, interesting in many little ways.

In case it's not at the library.

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