Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Jigsaw (1970)

I have the impression that Ed McBain (Evan Hunter, which was not his real name either) was one of those folks who takes pride in being "politically incorrect"—that is, offensive to certain sensitivities without really caring. I say this after reading a lot of his stuff and also because I have an uneasy feeling about the evolution of this entry in the 87th Precinct series. It's pure speculation, and you'll have to bear with me a bit. Jigsaw is one of the shortest novels in the series—I've got it at 175 pages—and focused on just one case. Six years earlier, a bank was knocked off to the tune of $750,000. The robbers were chased down and killed, but the money was never recovered. Now a photograph of where the money was hidden is surfacing. That photo was cut into eight pieces that are in the shape of jigsaw puzzle pieces (which had to be hell with the scissors, note). Those pieces were distributed to eight various parties who are now starting to turn up dead. A handy insurance investigator arrives to fill the detectives in on the details and even take a turn as a suspect. But this case, as happens now and then in the series, is weak mystery writing. It's less the point here, and feels like it's just going through the motions. What's really different is that the main detective is Arthur Brown, though Steve Carella is his partner on the case (Meyer Meyer and Cotton Hawes get a few lines too, working the case). Arthur Brown is McBain's superbad African American detective who rarely gets more attention than scenery, let alone the main role, which usually falls to Carella. In fact, this is actually Brown's only starring role in the whole series. And it is indeed a racialized narrative. My kindle version bizarrely has a copyright date of 1963, but this story is no earlier than 1967, and all other sources agree on 1970, which feels about right for the raised consciousness on display here. Brown is big like a boulder so people have to respect him. They constantly test him to see how far they can go, calling him a spade and such. A white woman throws herself at him for sex. Brown even gets to do a scene where he plays a corrupt Northern hustler to another white woman, this one from the South, who is so frightened she tells him everything he wants to know in minutes. All right, OK, different times, heart in the right place, etc. But then I started thinking about the tedium of this case, and I'm talking about tedium in a mere 175 pages, with this endless search for photo fragments. And then I started thinking about the title. Could it be? Yes, I'm afraid I think so. Here's how I've got it doped out. First came the idea to feature Arthur Brown in one of these novels. For the times, that would make it "relevant." Then came the title—McBain didn't know yet what he was going to do with it, but his daring politically incorrect instincts could not let go of it. Then he packed foofaraw around it: a photograph, a photograph cut into pieces in a ridiculous way, a photograph whose image is the only way to solve the crime. No way in hell has anything like this ever happened, not even in comic books.

In case it's not at the library.

1 comment:

  1. Now I gotta know how the un-pc jigsaw narrative puzzle here fits together. And why is the cover art of this one so much better than these other recent McBains you've written up?