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Ed McBain / Evan Hunter
Author of the 87th Precinct and Matthew Hope series among others

The majority of these reviews originally appeared in somewhat different form in Ex Libris Reviews

Books reviewed:
The 87th Precinct Series (McBain)
Doll, Ghosts, Ice
The Mugger, The Pusher
Killer's Choice, The Empty Hours
Money, Money, Money
Fat Ollie's Book, Ten Plus One
The Frumious Bandersnatch

The Matthew Hope Series (McBain)
Mary, Mary

Non-Series Novels
Candyland (McBain and Hunter)
The Gutter and the Grave (McBain)
The Moment She Was Gone (Hunter)

The Gutter and the Grave by Ed McBain Ed McBain, The Gutter and the Grave

Ever since he found his wife Toni with one of his operatives, all former private investigator Matt Cordell has wanted to do is crawl inside a bottle and stay there. He's been perfectly happy to wallow in his memories for the last five years, panhandling for change on the Bowery, and he doesn't want any trouble.

Enter trouble in the form of Johnny Bridges, a guy from Cordell's old neighborhood he hasn't seen in ten years. Johnny can't afford a real private detective -- and he doesn't want to get the police involved for personal reasons -- so he asks Matt for his help in figuring out whether his business partner, Dom Archese, is stealing from the till in their co-owned tailor shop.

Being that Cordell doesn't have a whole hell of a lot else filling his day, he says yes. This little piece of magnanimity (really just a way to get Johnny off his back) sweeps Matt into a full-fledged murder case where he encounters a shady cast of characters so full of lies that it is impossible to tell if anyone is ever telling the truth. (Not that it stops Cordell from climbing into the sack with as many of the potential femmes fatales as will let him.)

That's what you get for doing a guy a favor.

The Gutter and the Grave is a reprint of a novel originally published by Gold Medal under the title I'm Cannon -- For Hire and the byline of "Curt Cannon" (the name the Cordell's character was changed to). This edition is Ed McBain's preferred text, complete with edits made just prior to his death. It is therefore a fascinating combination of the enthusiasm of a young writer (it is a little heavy on the exposition) and the restraint exercised by a seasoned pro (the violence is tight and visceral and not drawn out unnecessarily).

The Gutter and the Grave is a prime example of the fiction called noir: it's dark and it's dirty, and Matt Cordell is one depressing son of a bitch of a hero. He's full of self-pity and the smallest things set him off on a flashback. McBain keeps his prose raw and fluid, his dialogue sizzling, and a happy ending never crosses his mind (though there is a fun Blackboard Jungle reference for those who can appreciate it). This is a novel about the other side of society: the side where every day is a struggle and every relationship is just one more opportunity to take advantage of. It's the kind of potent novel that, after you get over the grungy feeling it leaves behind, makes you feel happy that you're not one of the characters -- a perfect addition to the Hard Case Crime canon.

Ed McBain, The Mugger (87th Precinct #2)

The main thing I've noticed about McBain's 87th Precinct series is how timeless they seem. I'll be going through thinking it's a modern-day story until McBain mentions that the cops make $5,000 a year and I'll be jarred out of the story, thinking "Oh, yeah, it was written in 1957."

Apart from these minor gaffes, however, the series is a fine piece of work. The Mugger is the second in the series -- I've also read #3 (The Pusher, #4 (The Con Man), #26 (Sadie When She Died), and #38 (Eight Black Horses, a Deaf Man story) -- and it goes right along with the rest. This is a series you can pick up at any point and catch up with everything right away, although I'm sure it would be easier to keep up with the character development if read in order.

The Mugger is named Clifford and is terrorizing women in Isola, New York (where the 87th precinct is located). The boys are on the trail, but unfortunately for them, his only calling card is that he ends with a bow, saying, "Clifford thanks you, madam," before running off.

Also involved is a young girl name Jeannie Paige, the sister-in-law of a friend of patrolman Bert Kling. Jeannie is found dead, Clifford is the main suspect and McBain writes another bang-up police procedural. McBain is the master.

Ed McBain, The Pusher (87th Precinct #3)

I've only read one other 87th Precinct, and it was this one's successor: The Con Man. The two books are equally good. Coming as they do from the early part of the series (#3 and #4, respectively), they are surprisingly timeless. Although, they were written in the late fifties, they feel as if they could be happening today. McBain was far-seeing enough not to put in period details.

In The Pusher, the boys of the 87th run across the body of Anibal Hernandez, a known dope peddler, with a noose around his neck and an empty syringe at his side. It's a clear suicide until the lab returns the cause of death as heroin overdose. Soon after, Anibal's sister is killed. 2nd/Grade Detective Steve Carella is after a suspect known only as "Gonzo," and Lieutenant Byrnes is privy to a very painful discovery.

McBain is always a quick read (and the size allows back-pocket fitting), and I love his description of an Isola winter on the first page. He is known for his knowledge of police procedure and he does not disappoint, making also for an educational read for those interested in the true workings of a metropolitan police force.

Ed McBain, Killer's Choice (87th Precinct #5)

No, it's not a new type of coffee, it's another 87th Precinct novel from the king of the police procedural, Ed McBain. (Yes, I know it's a bad joke, but I couldn't resist.) In Killer's Choice, Bert Kling is looking for the killer of a single mother who worked in a liquor store. Meanwhile, new transfer, from the 30th precinct, Cotton Hawes searches for the robber who killed fellow officer Roger Havilland.

Of course, this is a great mystery with terrific characters but it's the little touches that make McBain's books such fun reads, like the elevator operator that complains about never seeing the sun but has nothing whatsoever to do with the plot. And that people in this book refer to events in a previous book, The Pusher, that I had read and reviewed already. This merely added to the feeling of realism from the already-skillful characterizations. I'll definitely be reading more McBain.

Ed McBain, The Empty Hours (87th Precinct #15)

Here's a bit of a departure for McBain: The Empty Hours is a collection of three novelettes featuring the detectives of the 87th Precinct. His novels are fast-paced enough as they are, but these stories, made even tighter by their short length (approximately 70 pages each) and relative lack of subplots, seem to just whip by.

The title entry concerns the murder of Claudia Davis, a woman with mysterious surroundings: found strangled, she had just opened a new bank account and seemed eager to leave town in a hurry. In a story this short, any subplot -- however small -- has to be connected, which made the result mildly predictable, but the characters and McBain's taut prose keep the experience pleasurable in the midst of all the gritty realism.

When a local rabbi is murdered on the second day of Passover, "J" is found painted on the wall and Detective Meyer Meyer, a Jew himself (read any 87th story featuring him for the explanation to that name) is called in to investigate. This not only causes a run-in with a local Jew hater, but also causes Meyer to question his own devotion to his faith.

Cotton Hawes stars in "Storm" when he goes on vacation with his ladyfriend and ends up involved in the aftermath of a murder (using a sharpened ski pole, no less). Hawes is stranded at the resort due to the title atmospheric disturbance, and has the "city cop" has trouble with the local police investigation. Add trouble with the ladyfriend to this (he's not spending as much time with her as on the investigation) and you've got one of the fuller portraits of a usually supporting player. All three stories in The Empty Hours are top-rate and will easily please fans of the series.

Ed McBain, Doll (87th Precinct #20)

Tinka Sachs is brutally murdered in her bedroom as her daughter, Anna, listens from the next room, taking care to reassure her doll, "Chatterbox," that everything is all right. The boys from the 87th are called in to investigate and their only clue is a vague description from a one-eyed elevator operator who turns up missing.

It's not just another case for our heros, however, as Carella is kidnapped and Kling called upon to relive a past trauma. McBain's skills in storytelling and description, not to mention his portrayal of terrific police work, are all on fine display in Doll. It may be the best 87th precinct novel I've read yet, although I'm sure that will change as I get more into the series.

Ed McBain, Ghosts (87th Precinct #34)

McBain combines his 87th Precinct series with the supernatural in Ghosts and produces a book that would likely please fans of both genres. After famous writer Gregory Craig is murdered, his current girlfriend, a psychic medium named Hillary Scott, tells the police that a ghost did it. As they investigate using their usual tried-and-true techniques, Hillary's ideas seem to be getting closer to the truth. Although Hillary is portrayed as flighty, and the boys at the Eight-Seven as skeptics, McBain treats his subject with respect, letting the characters work out their beliefs as the story progresses.

There is a blurb on the cover from Stephen King proclaiming that he thinks this is one of the best of the series, but I have to disagree. I read it in two sittings, but it doesn't seem to have left the impression that, say, Ice has a number of weeks after finishing it. A few interesting details arise, like Carella getting into a possibly adulterous situation, and a famous, rich writer named Craig (sure he's dead, but I'll take what I can get). Still Ghosts is definitely a solid entry, and it's terrific to see McBain keeping it fun for himself by trying out new ideas, but Ghosts is merely passable in quality. Of course, that's like talking about a "bad" Picasso: a poor McBain is better by far than most anything else in print.

Ed McBain, Ice (87th Precinct #36)

After getting back into the 87th Precinct series with Fat Ollie's Book, I was eager to read another and picked up Ice (thus following my inadvertent pattern of reading them mostly in random order). I think it is safe to say that this is the best one I've read so far. Sally Anderson and Paco Lopez were both killed with the same gun. Whether there is any other connection between the two is up to the boys at the Eight-Seven to answer.

Taking place around Valentine's Day in the middle of an awful snowstorm, Ice is an indepth look at the workings of police investigation with all its inherent waves of excitement and boredom. At the same time as the police are investigating the murders, a couple of would-be criminals -- Emma and Brother Anthony -- are also looking into how they can get a piece of the deceased cocaine dealer Lopez's action. McBain increases the suspense by having each group (police and criminals) discover connecting clues almost at the same moment at different parts of the city. The people left in Emma and Tony's wake are picked up by the cops and added to the investigation as everything seems to be connected, but with no logical tie to the whole web. And when jeweler Marvin Edelman is murdered (with the same gun), the detectives start fearing that they might be dealing with a "crazy," because crazies make police work very difficult.

Eventually, of course, we are privy to the final piece that fits the puzzle into a whole, but along the way, we are given quite a ride as clue by clue is discovered. If you like watching hour-long cop dramas where the plot is assembled in the same fashion, you'll love Ice. I was thinking all along that it would make a great visual drama -- something akin to an episode of Hill Street Blues. So, I wasn't surprised when I read, during my research on the novel, that McBain's work had inspired that groundbreaking show. The plotting is tight and painstakingly crafted and the characters are becoming like old friends as I learn more and more about their personal lives (particularly Bert Kling's difficulties with women).

Ed McBain, Money, Money, Money (87th Precinct #51)

The title of McBain's 51st entry in his 87th Precinct series is most definitely a harbinger of its contents. I read this one because it is set during Christmas, when a woman is found eaten by lions. Because her leg was carried over to the 88th Precinct, Detectives Carella and Meyer have to share the case with one Oliver Wendell Weeks, known as "Fat Ollie" for obvious reasons. Ollie is a good detective, but he is definitely the most bigoted character in what has been a very socially progressive series. He also doesn't hesitate to talk about himself when questioning witnesses, making sure to embellish the truth if he's trying to impress an attractive woman so he'll appear multi-talented.

Counterfeiting is a major plot device in Money, Money, Money, which also involves drug runs, burglary, and that most devious of criminals, book publishers. As always, McBain ties several characters' stories together neatly and with style, never giving away too much and letting us remember specific clues on our own. He doesn't feel the need to hold our hands and I respect him all the more for it.

Plus, these novels are terrific entertainment and most of them are relatively short. I read Money, Money, Money in a little over a day and I'm not a fast reader. Lucky for me, there are many more of these novels to be read as this is probably only the sixth or seventh I've read. It is certainly the most recent that I've read and McBain's talent shows no signs of waning throughout the series.

On the other hand, the writing talent of Ollie Weeks (the story continues in Fat Ollie's Book, and the tome of that title is begun at the end of this one, giving us a taste of the level of Ollie's talent) leaves much to be desired.

Ed McBain, Fat Ollie's Book (87th Precinct #52)

At the end of Money, Money, Money, we learned that Detective Oliver Wendell Weeks of the 88th Precinct (not-so-affectionately called "Fat Ollie") had written his first novel. In Fat Ollie's Book, the next in the series, it takes center stage. When the book is stolen, along with the briefcase carrying it, it gets into the hands of a potential jewel thief, who thinks it is non-fiction and carries clues to the location of diamonds in the city of Isola. This part of the narrative is peppered by the thief reading portions of Ollie's incredibly poorly written book. I knew it was painful to read bad writing, but to have to read it to get through to the rest is something that is akin to torture.

Meanwhile Steve Carella, Bert Kling, and the rest of the gang from our beloved 87th are involved in their own cases. Carella has a particularly difficult time because Ollie wants to "share" a bust with him and he's not averse to reminding Carella that Ollie saved his life -- twice -- during "The $$$ Case" (as he's come to refer to it). Fat Ollie's Book is as good or better as McBain's other works, plus he's upped the humor quotient here, offering a sharp parody of police procedurals--especially his own (look out for the jab at his everpresent opening disclaimer).

Ollie is one of the more interesting characters Ed McBain has written in this 87th Precinct series. On the one hand, Weeks is an unapologetic bigot, not afraid to throw racial epithets as if they were simply definite articles. But on the other hand, despite his faults, he is an excellent cop with a powerful analytic mind. He gets his man, he just may go about it the wrong way. When he was only a supporting character, it was easy to dismiss him, but now, as he takes the spotlight, the reader has to find some part of him to relate to or the book doesn't work. This plus the forced bad writing makes for a mildly uncomfortable experience as the reader discovers more about himself through these trials. That McBain has pulls this off successfully shows me that, even after 50 novels in this series, his talent is even more admirable that I had originally thought.

Ed McBain, Mary, Mary (Matthew Hope #10)

In addition to his lauded 87th Precinct series, Ed McBain also follows the career of attorney Matthew Hope in his nursery rhyme-themed books. With titles like There Was a Little Girl and The House that Jack Built, Hope's novels are instantly recognizable, like any series that wants to stand out from the pack must be. They're also exceedingly well-written, which in terms of marketing, is secondary. First buy the book, then notice how well it reads.

In Mary, Mary we meet Mary Barton, a school teacher who dotes on her garden. She has silver bells, uses cockle shells in decoration, and...well, you get the idea. One day, three pretty maids (all in a row) are found buried in her garden, thus setting her up for murder. The only witness is an antagonistic neighbor who swears she saw Mary putting the little girls in the dirt, although there are several character witnesses ready to vouch for Mary's impeccable standing.

It's a pretty simple story that leads up to a straightforward conclusion (using the title in a way I didn't expect) and Hope is a kind, caring lawyer who doesn't defend anyone he believes guilty (always a good characteristic for a hero). This one spent an inordinate amount of time in the courtroom and could have been trimmed by a third, but as a whole it was a quite enjoyable read.

This series is very different in tone from the 87th series, however, as it takes place on the Florida coast as opposed to the gritty center of McBain's New York clone, Isola. Fans of one may not take to the other, but I found that McBain's writing is fluid and familiar enough that rates at least taking a sample.

Evan Hunter and Ed McBain, Candyland

Candyland is a collaboration of two authors who are masters of their respective genres. Evan Hunter's (Criminal Conversation, Hitchcock's The Birds) forte is the dark psychological profile, while Ed McBain (the 87th Precinct and Matthew Hope series) excels at the police procedural. Now they've combined their forces in this new novel, one taking the first half, the other the second. This is easier in this case than in others, however, because Evan Hunter and Ed McBain are, in fact, the same person.

Hunter starts us off with in the mind of Benjamin Thorpe, a Los Angeles architect on a business trip in New York. But work isn't on Thorpe's mind, sex is--all the time. Married for twenty-odd years, he keeps a little black book with encoded entries and is constantly on the lookout for his next conquest, be she by phone or in person. A late-night visit to a local brothel ends in violence with an unlikely person putting Thorpe up for the night.

We wake up the next morning led by McBain. Three police officers, including Special Victims Unit detective Emma Boyle, are attempting to investigate the murder of one of the prostitutes in the above brothel, and Thorpe eventually becomes their main suspect. McBain's more action-oriented prose speeds us through this section to a surprising conclusion.

I ate Candyland up like peanut butter and jelly. As a new convert to the 87th Precinct family (as well as a fan of Conversation, I knew this "dual" author could write, but this has increased my opinion of him immensely. The subject matter is obviously for mature readers (neither Hunter nor McBain pull any punches) but for those willing to make the jump, a terrific ride awaits.

Evan Hunter, The Moment She Was Gone

As Ed McBain, Evan Hunter writes the wonderful 87th Precinct series and the lesser-but-still-entertaining Matthew Hope series. Under his real name (legally, that is, he had it changed), he writes thrilling psychological studies like Criminal Conversation. (The screenplay to Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds and the novel The Blackboard Jungle -- basis of the classic film starring Vic Morrow, Glenn Ford, and Sidney Poitier -- also came from Hunter's pen.)

The Moment She Was Gone begins just as Annie Gulliver, twin of narrator Andy Gulliver ("no relation to the Raggedys"), has disappeared yet again. The story is told from Andy's point of view as he remembers their life and tries to put the pieces together to figure out what exactly is wrong with his sister. She seems to be hallucinating often, gets into a lot of trouble, makes obscene jewelry, and lives off their mother while traveling the world. Is this all based on an event that happened when Annie was sixteen, or is there something more sinister at work?

Hunter's skill lies in offering up the thrills in realistic situations. The Moment She Was Gone kept me turning the pages until the very end, where I was stopped short, having wanted the story to continue. My only complaint is that Annie's behavior is never truly explained, mostly explained away, but the book itself is such a quick and engaging read that it is easy to forgive.

Copyright 2003-2004 by Craig Clarke and Ex Libris Reviews. Reprinted with permission.