Tuesday, December 06, 2016

He Who Hesitates (1964)

This is one of the more formalist experiments that show up in Ed McBain's 87th Precinct series of police procedurals. If it's not entirely pulled off, well, at least he was trying. That restless creativity is also something to like about him. The experiment is also probably the reason that it's very short—hard to sustain. What we have is the point of view of a temporary visitor to the city, Roger Broome, a craftsman in wooden goods such as salad bowls and utensils. He encounters five of the detectives, which is way too much coincidence, all things considered. From the beginning he has something on his mind, or his conscience, and he keeps intending to go to the police. But [the title]. For much of it we have no idea if he's committed a crime, or what, which is clarified later. It depends on many things that don't seem very likely to me. For example, that a woman would notice an abandoned refrigerator in the basement of an apartment building had been stolen. Then that the police would investigate to the extent of canvassing the building. There's a general nod in the direction of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, which makes sense for its time. It's also interesting to watch McBain telescope his detective caricatures to the barest terms: Hall Willis "the short one," Cotton Hawes (Broome hears it as "Horse"), with red hair and white streak, Meyer Meyer, bald, Steve Carella, with a beautiful deaf wife, radiating a sense of decency. (McBain always does favor Carella, doesn't he?) There's even a kind of sickening twist at the end. It probably made a good proposal pitch. It's fun to review the premise as now when I'm writing it up. But it never really transcends the bounds of its concept. What we appear to have in the end (spoiler alert) is a psychopath. As everyone knows, psychopaths are going to do what psychopaths do. It's literary license to do practically anything. That's one problem, though the sense of grim chill might arguably merit it. Mostly I missed the personalities of the 87th Precinct detectives, who played in the background, as they had to. Even at that, they were a little too loud and omnipresent. File this one under noble failed experiment, and don't even think about reading it first in the series. Really.

In case it's not at the library.

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