Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct

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.

This week

Some things I’ve been in to this week:

A statue:  I tweeted a picture of the John Betjeman statue at London St. Pancras Station last Sunday saying it was one of my favourite statues, and was surprised it was retweeted 20 times by people I don’t know (I think it may have something to do with this man retweeting it).  But it’s a great statue of a poet whose poetry I love anyway, and it captures really well not only him as a person but his belief in the glories of St. Pancras Station.

A pub:  As you’ll have guessed, I was in London last weekend, and I made sure I called in to my favourite pub in the capital – the Founders Arms at Bankside.  And the reason it’s my favourite pub is its view and nothing at all to do with its drink, food or decor (although that’s not too bad).  Looking out over the Thames watching the boats going up and down and the amazing architecture of the City of London on the opposite bank, makes it a perfect place to sit and drink.  As a result it gets very busy of course, but you can usually find a spot.  The best time to be there though is just before sunset as the ‘golden hour’ takes affect and creates the wonderful glow on the surrounding buildings.

An article:  There was an excellent article in The Independent Magazine last Saturday about Labour’s MP for Walthamstow Stella Creasy.  It’s a really good insight in to someone who’s gained a reputation for her campaigning on national issues, and who people talk about as a star of the future.  She’s also managed that unusual feat of using social media a lot and appearing both human and political.  I asked a Lib Dem friend who lives in that part of London whether she really is as good as the reports suggest, and his answer was that she really is that good.

A line from a TV programme:  This comes from one of the best ever comedies – Yes, Prime Minister – and in this episode Prime Minister Jim Hacker believes that the Employment Secretary Dudley is plotting to overthrow him (Series 2, Episode 1 “Man Overboard”).  It’s only a short exchange but it’s one of my favourites:

Jim: It’s envy you know. Dudley is consumed with envy.
Bernard: It’s one of the seven Dudley sins.

An exhibition:  There’s not long left of the Vikings exhibition at the British Museum (two days in fact) and so it’s time to visit if you haven’t.  I only just managed it last weekend.  It really gives a strong sense of what life was like in those times, the amazing art from that time (which we probably don’t generally realise) and the distances they travelled.  It isn’t just about raping and pillaging in the North of England.

A song:  Sometimes a song just comes in to your head for no apparent reason even though it’s not a song you listen to very often.  Last Sunday evening on the train back home it was Glorious by Captain.  A catchy sang that’s upbeat but also I detect a bit of angst.  What amazes me is how recent this song is and how unsuccessful it was commercially.  Sadly I’m not able to embed the video to this site, but you can watch it here.

Two more exhibitions:  Another trip last weekend was to The Photographers’ Gallery to see John Deakin and the Lure of Soho and also the nominees for the Deutsche Börse Prize.  John Deakin’s photos of Soho in the 50s and 60s really conjure up that time and a slightly curious mixture of glamour and mystery.  The Deutsche Börse Prize is one of the most prestigious annual photography competitions.  The nominees are always massively different and always fascinating, with my favourites this year being the eventual winner Richard Mosse with large format images of Congo using infrared film, and Alberto García-Alix with his four decades of personal and at times intimate scenes.  The Photographers’ Gallery is an amazing place and really handy near Oxford Circus and it’s free entry.  I just wish I could spend more time there.

A TV series:  There’s only three days left of the BBC’s A Very British Airline, but I recommend watching it before it disappears.  A glimpse in to the day to day life of British Airways.  It is a brilliant sales job for the company as you realise how particular and how meticulous (and I mean really meticulous) they are at making everything right, but it’s also quite inspiring to see the effort that goes in to create a genuinely quality brand.  A brand that I’d always seen as old-fashioned and fuddy duddy, but in this you realise is actually trying to become more modern whilst keeping many of their old values.

This week

Some things I’ve been in to this week:

A painting:  Last weekend I had a brief look around parts of Tate Modern, having never been and finding myself in the area, but then leaving after not long as it was just so busy.  However, this was the painting that stuck in my mind – Seated Woman with Small Dog by Meraud Guevara.  It’s perspective is a little weird but it makes you think – who is she, what’s she doing there, what’s she thinking about?

A map (or two):  As a geographer it’s inevitable that I love maps.  And it’s political geography that I particularly love.  I also quite like some of these counterfactual histories you get.  So what better than two maps that show what the Middle East might be like if boundaries were determined on what would make more practical sense and what makes religious, ethnic or linguistic sense.  These things are always controversial and open for debate and suspicions of motives, so I’m not endorsing any of these ideas, but these two from Ralph Peters and Robin Wright are particularly interesting and share some similarities, and it’s interesting to read the logic behind the boundaries and what the affect could be.

A song:  I was listening to Amy Winehouse on the way to work this week (partly inspired by reading this interesting book about Nica Rothschild), and one song from her first album Frank that’s always been a favourite is Take the Box.  It’s not one of her best known songs by any stretch of the imagination, but it shows off her voice well.


A blog post:  Mark Wallace of Conservative Home has written an interesting piece about how the Conservatives won the Newark by-election.  What strikes me from this article and what I’ve heard elsewhere is how much the Conservatives turned this in to quite a Lib Dem style of campaign by bringing in loads of helpers and picking on good local issues.  But what I also found interesting was a Conservative squeeze letter that Wallace mentions in his article that encouraged Labour and Lib Dem voters to tactically vote Conservative to keep Ukip out – having seen a copy it was a very well written letter that I can see would have worked well.

A photography exhibition:  Another discovery at Tate Modern was the exhibition of Incidents by Henry Wessel.  This show is highlights from a collection of photographs recently purchased by Tate Modern and depicts glimpses of ordinary life on the American West Coast.  Quiet and unassuming but full of intrigue.

A fresh start to my blogging

It had always been my plan that once I retired as a councillor I would get this blog up and running again.  Well here I am trying to make it happen and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it lasts.

I always enjoyed blogging, but after a steady decline in the frequency of posts through 2009 and first half of 2010, it just ground to a halt completely with only intermittent posts up to a final one in August 2012.  It isn’t a coincidence that it ground to a halt when I became a councillor.  I tried to keep up a MyCouncillor site instead about what I was doing as a councillor, but I found that difficult to keep going as well.  Perhaps I was too busy and too tired.  Perhaps I just lost the enthusiasm for constant writing.  Perhaps I was too wary of writing stuff when everything I said would be scrutinised by the opposition.  Whatever the reason, I had stopped doing something that I had previously really enjoyed and which I know some other people quite enjoyed reading too.  After all, there were nearly 27,000 views in 2009 and so I must have been doing something right.

Dawning realisation

Over the last 18 months to two years it’s become increasingly clear to me how much my life has become pretty one-dimensional.  My day job is in politics.  In my spare time I do politics.  Plus I was a councillor, which is of course politics.  I’m still passionate about politics but it’s not all there is to my life.  In fact for ages I’ve been moaning that I don’t have time for my other hobbies and interests.  If you combine this with the thought that I’ll soon be 40 and a growing sense that I am spending most of my non-work time fulfilling other people’s expectations and demands on my time rather than doing what I want, I decided it was time for a change.  It’s one reason I decided not to restand for council, it’s why I’m beginning (slowly) to rediscover some of my old interests and it’s also why I’m sort of trying to do something about the interests that I’ve always had but never done much about.

There’s a saying “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear” and in my case it was stumbling on the inspirational book The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin.  It’s not overstating things to say that I’ve become slightly obsessed with this book, and I decided that I needed to start to change things.  A part of that change is to try and live a more wholehearted life and do more of the many things that I enjoy.  It’s time to try and rediscover me.  Hopefully restarting this blog will be one small part of that.

Refreshing the blog

One of the things I’ve always enjoyed is writing, in fact unusually the first job I ever said I wanted as a child was to be a writer, (actually, I said I wanted to be a bookmaker but fortunately my parents knew what I meant).  Well blogging isn’t quite the same as being a writer, but it’s a start.

So now I’m writing again, it’s felt like a good time for a refresh of the look of the blog, especially as I have some new ideas for things I want to write about.  I’ve picked a new ‘theme’ – this one’s called Suits – which replaces Vigilance.  I’ve also created new categories and tags for my new posts, and deleted some old ones to make this a clear break from what’s come before but without deleting the old posts that I’ve written as some of it I thought was quite good and I’m someone who likes to keep things for history’s sake.  I want to spend more time writing about the whole range of stuff I’m interested in rather than just concentrating on a small set of things, usually politics, and so it should feel quite different.

Now I just need to stick with it and make sure this blog works.  I’m going to start off slowly and gradually with some regular and perhaps more low key posts and hope it then becomes a habit.  One of which will be a (hopefully) weekly summing up of things I’ve liked and been in to, rather than struggling to write a whole post for every thing that I find interesting.  I’ll also start to publish some things I wrote ages ago but then never actually posted.  Fingers crossed it works.

This week

Some things I’ve been in to this week:

A song:  I discovered Paul Thomas Saunders through an iTunes free song a few months ago, but this was another one from the same album and straight away I loved it.  Good Women is relaxing and calm and great to just chill to.


An article:  I travelled on the Caledonian Sleeper on a round trip from London Euston to Edinburgh Waverley about 15 years and it was a great experience.  This article from the BBC explains why it’s wonderful and why it’s great that it’s being invested in, even if as the article says it can be difficult to sleep on on your first journey and why the bar is a little retro.

Another article:  I’m convinced that one reason I struggle to sleep as well as I used to is that my blinds aren’t dark enough.  It could of course just be a result of getting older – I need to get up and go to the toilet in the night more than I used to – but this article also from the brilliant BBC Magazine shows it’s not just me that’s not sleeping.

A photographer:  This is another brilliant Russian photographer but one I’ve only just discovered.  Alexey Bogolepov‘s photographs show scenes of ordinary buildings and landscapes.  If you’re a fan of brutalist architecture then it’s definitely for you.  For photographers who enjoy Bernd and Hilla Becher then his project Bloc is reminiscent and many of his other photographs would also fit neatly in to the New Topographics.

And yet another article:  Dan Hodges has rapidly become every Lib Dem’s favourite Labourite, but this article is great if you want to know what MPs are really like.  It’s a very true article about why most MPs are actually what most of the public ask for – fairly ordinary and with a long history of service and with work experience far removed from the Westminster bubble.  And I’m proud that the MP he’s used to represent this is the lovely Annette Brooke.

A video:  Jay Foreman has added another episode to his great series of videos about Unfinished London, this time a video about the capital’s airports.  A must watch for fans of London, history and transport and done in his customary quirky and funny style.

This week

Some things I’ve been in to this week:

A painting:  I briefly called in to the Leeds Art Gallery when I was in the city last Sunday and this painting on the staircase stopped me in my tracks.  It’s called The Day of Atonement by Jacob Kramer and at full scale feels powerful and creates a drama, a mystery and a feeling of contemplation which I enjoy.

An art exhibition: One of the current temporary exhibitions at Leeds Art Gallery is Nocturne.  This exhibition shows a collection of paintings and photographs of places set in moonlight, including some by one of my favourite artists John Atkinson Grimshaw.  Powerful, dramatic and melancholic.

A TV programme and a building:  As someone who is fascinated by architecture and who would love to build his own home one day it’s no great surprise that I also love Channel 4’s Grand Designs.  More4 recently repeated a programme about a largely subterranean house squeezed on to a tiny plot of round surrounded by other houses in North London.  It shows what you can do even in a crowded city and manages to be an absolutely stunning place to live.  Sadly the programme has already disappeared from 4OD, but this clip gives you a flavour although only by seeing the building in its final form do you really appreciate it.

A blog post:  There’s been a lot of Lib Dems understandably wanting to voice their opinion on the future direction of the party following this year’s Local and European Elections.  Some have followed the predictable ‘let’s bin Clegg’ line, but Lib Dem Voice have run a number of other quite thoughtful articles.  This first one from Elwyn Watkins is good at bringing a bit of the real world to the story of what goes on in some of the more difficult areas where we’re finding it hard to reach at present.

Another blog post:  Adam Killeya’s article about us resdiscovering Our Radical Edge is the other blog post I’ve picked out from Lib Dem Voice.  This one shows that whilst the party has done some great things in government, what is there for younger people?  This particularly stands out as Adam is almost (albeit slightly younger) a contemporary of mine and so the big issues when he joined the Lib Dems were similar to when I did.

A place to visit:  The day after the European Election count (a very late night was spent being utterly bored and depressed in Leeds) I wanted a day out somewhere I’d not been to before.  That place was the nearest National Trust property to where I live that I’d not been to  – The Workhouse Southwell in Nottinghamshire.  It may seem appropriate that I visited a workhouse just after a load of Lib Dem MEPs and staff lost their jobs, but I can recommend this as a fascinating place to visit.  Informative and educational, and a place that gives more than just one dimension to the story, and most significantly a guide who was remarkable in bringing the place to life.

This week

Some things I’ve been in to this week:

A set of photos:  This impressive set of photographs from the Telegraph are aerial shots of roof gardens and terraces around central London by Jason Hawkes.  I love how it reveals these places you probably wouldn’t be aware are there otherwise and I’m pleasantly surprised that I’ve been to four of them – OXO Tower, Kensington, One Bishops Square and One New Change.

A blog post:  This post from Carl Minns has generated some controversy by the impression that its title says that people who lost didn’t work hard enough.  An impression that some of the party’s official comment has also given, although in both cases I’m sure were unintended.  Why I like this post though is partly because it’s well written (Carl is a good writer) but also because it explains some of the reasons for Hull’s success over recent years, it points out that winning is not just about the leader and also why those plotting to oust the leader should perhaps wait and reflect a bit first.

A photograph:  I spent some of this last week in Prestwich helping my boss to win his council election (which he did).  It was only afterwards, although I suspected during the day, that I realised we were just round the corner to the former Agecroft Power Station.  Instantly this reminds me of the well known and amazing photograph by landscape photographer John Davies.  John’s photographs show the drama and beauty that industry can create that is every bit as stunning as rural landscapes.  I’ve seen this photograph on many occasions on the internet and in photobooks but I would love to see an exhibition with it in large format to get the full effect and really see the detail properly.  John Davies’ photographs are an inspiration to me.

Agecroft Power Station by John Davies

An article:  Have Generation X (people born between the mid 60s and mid 80s, and therefore me!) already had their time in the spotlight?  This short article from The Sydney Morning Herald asks the question and thinks that Baby Boomers stayed on too long, and too much has moved on in the short time that Generation X has been in charge, and it’s already moved to the new generation.  Not sure if I agree, but it’s a thought worth considering.

Another article:  This week’s elections may mean time has moved on since this article from The Guardian was written, but given the success that Ukip have had in traditional Labour areas, and not just against the Tories as was once assumed would be the case, makes this especially relevant.  Do traditional Labour voters feel Ukip’s economic message is closer to their opinions than those of Ed Miliband’s Labour party?

A song:  And in a depressing week for those who hate Ukip, something upbeat feels like a good way to end this.  In the week that Belinda Carlisle has been touring the UK this song is a good panacea.  She’s not everyone’s cup of tea but (We Want) The Same Thing reminds me of my teenage years and it’s a fun song: