Some of my friends insist that the best mysteries are as skillfully wrought as the classics. And they also insist that Golden Age Detective Novels by Agatha Christie, Edmund Crispin, and Dorothy Sayers aren’t the only mysteries I should read.
You have to branch out to police procedurals, they said.
Okay. Tough guy stuff.
Bring it on. I’ve been reading P. D. James and Sue Grafton for years.
But American guys? You’ve got to read the guys, too. And you’ve got to read Ed McBain.
Is he like Mickey Spillane? I had a dismal remembrance of a Mike Hammer novel by Spillane. Mike was tough, and really sexist.
But they said Steve Carella, the protagonist of McBain’s 87th Precinct series, is married and a nice guy.
So I picked up a copy of Ed McBain’s ‘Til Death, published in 1959, one of the many, many books in his 87th Precinct series. And you know what? It’s really good. Almost a classic. I’m sure some of his later books are classics.
Detective Steve Carella is charming and likable, an Italian-American cop in New York married to a deaf-mute woman, Teddy. In ‘Til Death, Teddy is heavily pregnant with their first child. Steve wakes up on a Sunday morning wishing he could sleep in, and sorry that he has to be celibate now that Teddy is so huge and the birth imminent.
McBain’s style is witty, casual, and apparently effortless.
“Detective Steve Carella blinked at the early Sunday morning sunshine, cursed himself for not having closed the blinds the night before, and then rolled over onto his left side. Relentlessly, the sunlight followed him, throwing alternating bars of black and white across the white sheet. Like the detention cells of the 87th, he thought. God, my life has become a prison.”
Then the phone rings, and Sunday becomes a little more prison-like. It is Carella’s sister’s wedding day, and her fiance, Tommy Giardano, has received an unexpected present–a box labeled “For the groom,” containing a black widow spider. Carella calls some of his cop friends to help patrol the wedding. And since a few more threats come Tommy’s way, it turns out they are needed.
Ed McBain was the pseudonym of Evan Hunter, best known for Blackboard Jungle, a novel about teaching in the inner city. (Hunter started his career as a teacher.) His agent insisted that he publish mysteries under a different name so fans wouldn’t object. I think we know this kind of separation of genres very well. John Banville writes mysteries under the name Benjamin Black, C. Day Lewis did under Nicholas Blake, and Carolyn Heilbrun as Amanda Cross.
‘Til Death is not only suspenseful, but humorous. I like the banter. And Carella’s fellow cops are also distinctive characters. His sister, Angela, is well, a bit womanish, but his wife, Teddy, is perceptive.
A good series–one I’m already hooked on.