The 87th Precinct Stories by Ed McBain: A Master by Any Name

Author Ed McBain (b. 1926 - d. 2005)
Author Ed McBain (b. 1926 – d. 2005)

Author Ed McBain wrote under many “nom de plumes” He wrote as Evan Hunter (Matthew Hope series), Curt Cannon, Hunt Collins, and Richard Marsten for his crime fiction as well as Ed McBain for the 87th Precinct books and S.A. Lombino, Evan Hunter, Richard Marsten, D.A. Addams and Ted Taine when he wrote science fiction.

Whichever name he used this prolific author produced books that were entertaining, fun, and full of characters that you bonded with. None more so than the detectives in the 87th. The stories are all in the fictional town of Isola that is a disguised “version” of Manhattan island in New York. His “cops from the city of Isola first made their appearance in the book Cop Hater.

From this first book (in 1958) McBain produced no less than 1 to 2 books a year about these hard-working policemen for a grand total of 54 stories in all. A good amount of the books were made into movies and they also spawned a television series that McBain wrote for as well.

You know that you’ve “made it” when your stories are referenced in books written by other people. McBain’s cops from the 87th have been mentioned in quite a few books by different authors. Even one of  Stephen King‘s characters talks of going home and catching up on the “boy’s” latest crime solving fest (The Stand re-release 1990).

The detectives, as well as his criminals in the books, were well-rounded individuals who had personality and depth. The cops had a nemesis in the “Deaf Man” a master criminal who enjoyed toying with the police, in particular Steve Carella. The cast of characters who made up the 87th were all memorable and all developed into favourites with the reading public.

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All the detectives had personalities and foibles just like “real people” and each had a characteristic that summed up their actions. Meyer Meyer – the Jewish and bald detective whose father gave him the repetitive name as a joke; Cotton Hawes – a red-head who’d been stabbed in the head, leaving a white streak, whose father named him after Cotton Mather of the Salem Witch Trials; Bert Kling – the poster pretty boy who works his way up from the uniformed police force, Arthur Brown – the black detective of the overpowering size with a calm temperament, Hal Willis  – the short tough detective with poor taste in women; the list could go on, but I’m going to focus on the crowd pleasing Steve Carella.

Carella with his beautiful deaf/mute wife Teddy (in the days before political correctness it was okay to use those terms to describe someone who was both deaf and mute. Now I would need two or more sentences to describe Teddy). In what could be seen as the ultimate male chauvinistic choice of a partner, Carella marries Teddy who, even though she cannot speak, uses sign language and lip-reading to communicate.

Out of all the detectives Italian Steve Carella is the definite favourite. His tall and “slanty-eyed” cop is a real hit with the ladies and fans alike. Steve is easy to get along with and he likes all his fellow detectives with the exception of “new boy’ Richard Genero (who shot himself in the foot) and the bigoted ‘Fat’ Ollie Weeks from the 85th precinct although, as the old joke goes, Ollie likes and admires Carella.

I just finished reading two 87th Precinct books after a very long hiatus from the series. Killer’s Wedge and Long Time No See. As usual McBain’s titles reflect the story. Like his Matthew Hope books (a popular series about an “investigating” lawyer written under the name of  Evan Hunter) they have a relevance to the plot, although, the Hope books usually resemble some sort of pun or joke as in one title called Gladly the Cross-eyed Bear.

Killer’s Wedge features a “locked-room” mystery for Carella to solve and there’s a woman who is not a member of the Stephen Carella fan club. In fact this explosive lady can’t wait to meet him, but not to give him a key to the city.

Long Time No See has Carella and his partner Meyer trying to figure out why a madman is killing blind-people and “gassing” their seeing-eye dogs. This one is a real intricate piece of work that runs like a well made Swiss watch.

Both these stories feature Carella as the focus of attention, but as usual with an 87th precinct novel, all the other detectives get a turn or two. McBain’s series has been lauded by serving police officers since its inception. For stories that have spanned a 47 year time period, McBain has managed to make each one as “true” as possible in his depiction of how police really work.

His truth lies in the procedure and the rules that police have to follow. The footwork involved and the “intuition” that no-one relies on, but still listens to, added to the realistic characters that McBain paints in the books helped to make them a favourite among the real “cops.”

Sadly, Ed McBain died in 2005 of throat cancer. His books live on, however, and none more so than the 87th novels that feature Steve, Meyer, Cotton, Bert and all their co-workers and the criminals, victims, and innocent bystanders that populate the fictional town of Isola. I can highly recommend both the aforementioned books.

I can also recommend the entire 54 book series. I have read quite a few myself and I’m still discovering new ones I’ve missed. I found out about McBain and his brilliant books “through the backdoor” again. I read Stephen King’s 1981 book  Danse Macabre where he talks about horror as a genre. In the section about TV movies he wrote about Fuzz; the film was made as a comedy, but was based on Ed McBain’s book of the same title.

Curious, I hunted down the book and read it. I instantly became a fan for life. If you can, and it’s a whole lot easier these days with eBooks and the internet, hunt down this fantastically entertaining series about the denizens of the 87th. (Both of the aforementioned books are available for the Kindle.)

It could be considered a crime not to.

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The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, Mockingjay: The Three Stages

I have not gotten this excited about an author since I got sent a Stephen King book as a Book Club “Choice of the Month” in 1979. I had never heard of King before, but the book – The Stand (and can you think of a better introduction to Kings work, than The Stand?) was huge and had a cover with a dwarf dressed as some sort of knight who was engaged in battle with some big thing.  Despite this inauspicious start, I opened the book and started reading. I did not stop until I had finished the book, I then re-read it. I have in fact re-read the book many times since then. I became a huge King fan, and yes Stevie I would read your shopping list if you so chose to write it.

I have now found a new writer to fall in love with, well with her words and her stories, Suzanne Collins. After reading the first instalment  in her trilogy, The Hunger Games, I ran down and bought the other two books in the series. I read the last two in such a state of concentration that the house could have burned down and I would not have noticed. In fact I read all three books in three days. Just in case your math skills are a little rusty, that works out to a book a day friends and neighbours.

With each book weighing in at around five hundred pages per novel, that is some heavy duty reading. And before you ask, no I have never taken a speed reading course, I just read really fast. Ask my first wife, she knows. The point I am trying to make, by going the “the long way around the barn” is this. Suzanne Collins, to me anyway has joined the short list of authors that can take me fully into the world that she has created.

That’s right, I said short list of authors.

King, always; with the exception of Carrie, I had a hard time dealing with the last of the book, with it’s press clippings and interviews. John D. MacDonald, always, especially if it was a Travis McGee book. Elmore Leonard, Always, no exceptions, Ed McBain, no exceptions; I really miss the guys at the 87th precinct. I could probably make a list of writers that could fill a good sized paragraph, but it would still be short compared to the amount of published writers that currently exist.

In a time where the mass production of the Kindle has caused ebooks to start selling like hotcakes, thereby giving exposure to a host of mediocre writers, Collins shines like a beacon. Oh how brightly she shines. In my opinion, her books should be taught in school, not Stephanie Meyer’s dreadful Twilight series. Twilight with it’s lackadaisical heroine and the poor writing style. The female protagonist in her books is so wishy washy, so lacklustre and the books themselves so sophomorically written…Sorry, but I think you can catch my drift here.

These three books are brilliantly written. Collins has given us a positive role model for a female heroine. The stories themselves serve us a powerful message: “The new boss is the same as the old boss.” Or in layman’s terms, power corrupts and we really shouldn’t trust anyone who has absolute power.

I am not going to bother going over plot points. I won’t go into any discussions about characters and their arcs. I will say one thing about Suzanne Collins’ books.

Read them, all of them.