Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series of detective stories are set, unsurprisingly, in the 87th Precinct of the fictional American district of Isola (essentially Manhattan) are often cited as an inspiration for future crime writers. For that simple reason I’ve long intended to start reading them, but had always thought, logically, that I should start at the beginning. In the end, after realising that reading them in order whilst beneficial is not essential, I decided to just start with one of the few that I already owned – a slightly musty 1973 hardback copy of Let’s Hear it for the Deaf Man that once belonged to my parents. Let’s Hear it for the Deaf Man is the 27th in the 57 strong series of books, a series which, if I continue at my usual speed of reading, and despite me being only 38, would see me die before I have read every one. The reason for this post though is to declare simply that I’ve fallen in love with them after just one book.
It has often been said that Ed McBain was the inspiration behind Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck books, (a series up there as some of my favourites), but in a recent interview, Maj Sjöwall stated that she only discovered them when the two started being compared. Never the less, you can see why they are so often compared as both series are forerunners of many of the grittier police procedurals that now sell in their millions every year. It seems perhaps that, like the invention of photography, two sets of people had the same sort of idea at around the same time, which makes people assume one must have been the predecessor of the other. Actually, once Sjöwall and Wahlöö tracked down and read their first 87th Precinct book they encouraged their publisher to republish them in Swedish with them doing the translating.
There’s much that can be said about the brilliant plots – two running concurrently despite the book being fairly short – the realistic sense of camaraderie between the police detectives in the story, and the clever way it develops. But what really stood out for me were the brilliant words. What Ed McBain manages to do is tell a simple short story using beautiful language but without over-complicating the smooth reading of the book. It’s not about the vocabulary that is used, but the turn of phrase. Take this for example:
The rain swept the pavements like machine-gun fire, in some gray disputed no-man’s land. A jagged lance of lightning crackled across the sky, followed by a boom of thunder that rattled Carella to his shoelaces.
Dramatic, beautiful language that brings the story to life, but without using complicated vocabulary. It’s a real skill. What is even more amazing is the two pages spent describing how wonderful [New York] city is, by essentially and in a very un-PC way comparing her to a scruffy loose woman. It’s a complete aside to the plot, but just really works at that particular point. Amazing. But then Ed McBain did describe the city as a character in the plot in her own right.
The 87th Precinct books are inevitably slightly dated, largely in the use of language that would these days be considered racist and sexist, although Ed McBain (or Salvatore Lombino as he was born, or Evan Hunter as he became later) would have been considered pretty liberal for the time. This particular book is also dated by the way that the bank branch manager is expected to agree a loan for a speculative property development. But beyond that this book seems pretty fresh now, even 40 years after it was published.
I can add a new crime writer to my list of favourite authors. The question now is how on earth I’ll find the time to read them all.