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When we were kids our grandparents home libraries tilted heavily towards mysteries, including the mystery book club that used to put three in one volume. The highlights of their collection, for me at any rate, were Ed McBain's 87th Precinct series and Georges Simenon's Maigret mysteries....


I'd no sooner written the above, for a review of a Maigret book, than word came that Ed McBain -- actually Evan Hunter, of course, well, no, Salvatore Lombino turns out to have been his given name -- had died. Mr. McBain is credited with creating the police procedural, beginning with his first entry in the 87th Precinct series, Cop Hater (1956). If the classic British mystery seemed to take place entirely in the drawing room of a stately country manor and the classic American one involved a hard-boiled private eye working entirely on his own, the formula he crafted took an entire squad of detectives and set them down on the streets of a tough city -- the fictional Isola standing in for his own New York. His books seemed more realistic because the cops were more recognizably like us, with girlfriends, wives, and families and problems with bureaucratic politics. His large cast of regulars allowed him to develop multiple storylines and to shift his focus around the station house. To the extent that there was a central figure it would have to be Steve Carella, earnest, morally centered, with a deaf wife, Teddy.

Carella is on the case here, partnered with Bert Kling, who's been the naive junior member of the team for half a century now. But pride of place is given to Detective Oliver Wendell Weeks, the "Fat Ollie" of the title. Part of the delight of the books is that over time they've become completely anachronistic. Mr. McBain kept writing his characters as he'd invented them, but let the background events reflect the present day. So 9-11 and the war in Afghanistan are frequent touchpoints in the story but Fat Ollie is like Archie Bunker before Norman Lear got ahold of him. The idea that a cop could get away in the year 2002 with being as vociferously racist, sexist, and homophobic as Weeks has remained is obviously ludicrous. However, it's quite amusing to watch him cut a swathe through politically correct times.

The mystery involves the shooting death of a city councilmen who was about to declare for mayor and the theft of the novel that Fat Ollie had just finished. The murder is pretty stock stuff, but the police author plot gives Mr. McBain an opportunity to riff on the very genre he invented and wield a rather poison pen. At one point Ollie meets yet another cop who's written a novel of his own:
That's what we need, all right, Ollie thought. Another novel about police work. There used to be no novels about police work at all. Then, all of a sudden -- God knows who or what the influence might have been -- every sh[odd]y town in America had a fictitious character working out of a detective squadroom. To look at all these police novels out there, you'd think every hamlet in America was overrun with crime. Dumb little village has a population of six hundred people, according to these novels there are murders being committed there every hour on the hour.
Even as it drips with a fair amount of bitterness -- Mr. McBain even wanted to sue the creators of Hill Street Blues for pilfering his ideas -- that's awfully funny stuff. Doing things like dropping in such metafictional discourse earned the later books a reputation for greater ambition, but the older, more straightforward entries are even more enjoyable.


(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A-)

  

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Mystery
Ed McBain Links:

    -Featured Author: Ed McBain: With News and Reviews From the Archives of The New York Times
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Evan Hunter (IMDB.com)
    -OBIT: Evan Hunter, Writer Who Created Police Procedural, Dies at 78 (MARILYN STASIO, July 7, 2005, NY Times)
    -TRIBUTE: The Close of a File (OTTO PENZLER, July 8, 2005, NY Sun)
    -OBIT: Crime novelist Ed McBain dies at 78 (AFP, 7/07/05)
    -OBIT: US crime novelist Ed McBain dies (BBC, 7/08/05)
    -OBIT: Novelist known to fans as Ed McBain dies at 78 (Reuters News Service, 7/07/05)
    -ESSAY: The Bad Cop in Everyone (EVAN HUNTER, December 30, 1993, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: WRITERS ON WRITING: She Was Blond. She Was in Trouble. And She Paid 3 Cents a Word (ED McBAIN, March 29, 1999, NY Times)
   -REVIEW: of POODLE SPRINGS By Raymond Chandler and Robert B. Parker (Ed McBain, NY Times Book Review)
    -INTERVIEW: Writing Under an Assumed Name (SELWYN RAAB, January 30, 2000, NY Times Book Review)
    -INTERVIEW: Writing for Hitchcock: An Interview with Ed McBain Novelist Evan Hunter (AKA Ed McBain) discusses his work (Charles L. P. Silet, Mystery Net)
    -BookPage Interview January 2000: Ed McBain
    -INTERVIEW: Talking With Ed Mcbain (Audiofile)
    -INTERVIEW: Ed McBain: Two For The Price Of One: Ed McBain - Evan Hunter (Interviewed by Michael Carlson , Crime Time)
    -PROFILE: The Many Faces of Evan Hunter (LEWIS NICHOLS, August 3, 1958, NY Times)
    -PROFILE: If It's Murder, It's McBain (BILL SLOCUM, April 30, 1995, NY Times)
    -Author Profile: Ed McBain (Bookreporter.com)
    -Ed McBain: All about Ed McBain, 87th Precinct, bio, links to books (Mystery Net)
    -BIBLIOGRAPHY: Ed McBain (Fantastic Fiction)
    -Evan Hunter (Wikipedia)
    -REVIEW: of The Blackboard Jungle by Evan Hunter (GILBERT MILLSTEIN, October 24, 1954, NY Times)

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