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Ed McBain -- 87th Precinct -- Lady Killer - Pulpfan

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February 11th, 2011

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11:20 am - Ed McBain -- 87th Precinct -- Lady Killer

Premise:  The detectives in the 87th Precinct,  a fictionalized version of Manhattan called "Isola", use authentic police investigatory techniques to deal with crime in a poor/working class neighborhood.

Story:  Early in the morning, on a blisteringly hot summer day, a boy brings a message to the desk sergeant at the 87th precinct.  Upon opening it, the sergeant reads this message:  "I will kill the lady tonight at 8.  What can you do about it?"

Going on the operative theory that the killer actually wants to be caught -- that the letter may contain hidden clues -- the detectives hustle to find either the intended victim or the perpetrator inside of a 12 hour window.

  • The novel, published in 1958,  does an effective job of evoking the feeling of living in a city and enduring a hot day, before air conditioning became common place.
  • The police techniques seem to be appropriate to pre-Miranda law enforcement.
  • There are two or three sequences involving a detective who works in the crime lab using scientific techniques to try to find useful clues.  Although this isn't a predominant element, its pleasantly surprising to see forensics being given an important role, decades before CSI
  • As with any mystery, there are a number of red herrings and blind alleys the police go down in the course of their investigation.  These are, however, enlivened by colorful characters, wonderful, terse, dialogue, and some interesting philosophical reflections.
  • The story is suspenseful ... the time factor is always present, and I found myself compelled to keep reading to see whether the police would be able to find the intended victim or perpetrator before the 8:00 deadline.
  • Just going on the basis of this novel alone, the characterization of the policemen is mostly pretty 2-dimensional, with the possible exception of Detectives Hawes and Carella.  Hawes is the primary point of view character, and we see a good bit of the story through his eyes, and are privy to his reflections on the people and circumstances he encounters.  Carella seems to be the first amongst equals amongst his squad, often advancing suggestions to his colleagues as to how to pursue the investigation.  He also seems to be something of a mentor to Hawes.  However, besides these two, the majority of the other characters are little more than names and one or two idiosyncrasies.
  • The ending, when it  comes, is a bit abrupt, and the killer's reasons for wanting, at some level, to be caught, are never fully explained.
  • I also have some misgivings about the underlying concept of a "corporate hero":  the series is aptly named, because the eventual success of the investigation is a group effort.

Its probably unfair to gauge the level of characterization based on this one novel alone.  This was part of a series that ran over decades, and from what I gather, in the course of the series, the characters cumulatively acquire depth.  Given the nature of the stories and their short length, the author only focussed on one or another Detective in each book ... but, over the course of the series, a group portrait eventually develops.

Moreover, having spent a good part of my life living in one of the largest cities in the country, I appreciate the picture that the author gives of that kind of urban environment, and the realpolitik considerations which the police are forced to confront.

Assessment:  Recommended.   Although I have long heard of this series for quite awhile, this was the first 87th Precinct novel I've read.  It was a good, brisk, entertaining read, with convincing details about police investigatory techniques, colorful characters, some lively humor, both wry and profane, and a little philosophical reflection on the role of the police trying to uphold justice in a corrupt society.  It says something positive about this series that, even though, as a rule, I prefer the individualism implicit in the Private Eye story to this kind of "corporate hero",  I'm tempted to get ahold of the first volume in the series, and read some more of these.

For what its worth, just found another review of this book at this website.

(5 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:February 12th, 2011 12:23 am (UTC)
That's a series I've been meaning to dip into for quite a while.
[User Picture]
Date:February 12th, 2011 07:55 pm (UTC)
It seems to be well worth exploring.

According to Doc Mystery, they are best read in order.
[User Picture]
Date:February 12th, 2011 06:21 pm (UTC)
I read and enjoyed this book too:


This is a series that actually progresses over time and if you can you should try and read them in proper order, since there are some recurrent persons, and even some members of the 87th precinct will die. Try and track down Cop Hater and The Mugger, the first two books; sometimes they are even sold as an omnibus collection.

[User Picture]
Date:February 12th, 2011 07:55 pm (UTC)
I have a copy of Cop Hater. I might have to try that one next.

Thanks for the recommendation!
[User Picture]
Date:March 1st, 2011 07:26 pm (UTC)
I've read "Cop Hater" now, and quite enjoyed it. Review will be posted shortly.

I'm currently trying to find a copy of the second book in the series "The Mugger".

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