This was the first of Mrs Offence’s selections.
Last Monday afternoon, when he could presumably have been working, a friend of mine generously found time to lean against my desk in a black polo neck reading aloud from Sadie. ‘Let’s see: “The police photographer made sure Sarah Fletcher looked as good as any lady can look with her belly slashed open and her guts on the bedroom rug”,’ he announced (I won’t do the voice). ‘Oh, this is excellent‘. I would have argued the toss there and then, but I’m contractually obliged to work productively between the hours of 9 and 5.
So here in answer are selected excerpts of Sadie, demonstrating why I think Ed McBain is great. By the way Sadie is the story of an investigation into the fatal stabbing of Sarah Fletcher. A neighbourhood junkie seems the obvious culprit, but Detective Steve Carella of the 87th precinct suspects her husband Gerald and begins to delve into their lives, uncovering a story of sexual promiscuity and infidelity.
‘Was she alone when you met her?’ Kling asked.
‘Alone and lonely,’ Thornton said, and grinned. It was a knowing grin, a grin hoping for a similar grin in response from Kling and Meyer, who being cops, had undoubtedly seen and heard all sorts of things and were therefore men of the world, as was Thornton hmself, comrades three who knew all about lonely women in singles’ bars.’
‘Did you realize she was married?’ Kling asked, sort of spoiling the Three Musketeers image.
McBain writes men brilliantly – especially cocky self-assured men who need to be taken down a peg or two. I think this is a great moment of deadpan humour.
In general the men in this book are unpleasant, shallow and aggressive. The character of the slightly hapless junkie knifeman is one of the more sympathetically portrayed. In a way he meant no harm to Sarah/Sadie.
Ralph Corwin was being kept in a wing of the building reserved for heavy felony offenders; his cell block at the moment was occupied by himself, a gentleman who had starved his six-month-old son to death in the basement of his Calm’s Point house, another gentleman who had set fire to a synagogue in Majesta, and a third member of the criminal elite who had shot and blinded a gas-station attendant during a hold-up in Bethtown.
McBain’s humour most often reflects his protagonists – cynical, knowing and resigned to evil in all its mediocrity. Is it slightly clunky sometimes? Yes. But can’t you just hear those words being said in a police bar at the end of a shift?
Carella had 640 odds-and-ends to clean up in the office on Saturday before he could begin the surveillance of Gerald Fletcher with anything resembling an easy conscience. So he had spent the day making phone calls and typing up reports and generally trying to put things in order.
The police procedural is an established form, but McBain was one of the writers who established it. His policemen are working men with admin to do and lives to balance as well as crimes to solve. McBain doesn’t neglect this – we get cluttered desks, questions about over-time and people angling for time off over Christmas.
‘I was wondering about Christmas,’ Carella said.
‘What about it?’
‘I’ve got the duty. You feel like switching with me?’
‘What for?’ Meyer said.
‘I thought I’d give you Chanukah or something.’
‘How long do you know me?’ Meyer asked.
‘Too long.’ Carella said, and smiled.
‘How many years has it been?’ Meyer said. ‘And you don’t know I celebrate both Chanukah and Christmas? I’ve had a Christmas tree in the house ever since the kids were born. Every year. You’ve been there every year. You were there last year with Teddy. You saw the tree. Right in the middle of the goddamn living room.’
‘I forgot,’ Carella said.
‘I celebrate both,’ Meyer said.
‘Okay,’ Carella said.
‘Okay. So the answer is no, I don’t want t switch the duty.’
In this mood of joyous camaraderie, Meyer and Carella parked the car and went into the building at 480 Reed Street.
Note that the investigation is shared between the squad with multiple points of view – nothing particularly special about that, but again McBain was one of the pioneers. Brown is a character I hadn’t really registered before, but he has a nice way with reports:
1:20 PM-Suspect and redheaded woman came out of Rudolph’s, drove back to 812 Crane, arrived 10:35 PM, went into building. No doorman, surveillant entered unobserved, elevator indicator stopped at eleventh floor. Check of lobby mailboxes showed eight apartments on eleventh floor (names of occupants not marked as to colour of hair.’
Byrnes looked up again, sharply this time. Brown grinned.
Meanwhile Bert Kling is pursuing his own love life, with little success, and feeling especially lonely as it gets towards…
…that fabulous flight of **FUN** and **FRIVOLITY** known as S*A*T*U*R*D*A*Y N*I*G*H*T U*S*A
McBain occasionally riffs on something – here on the perceived need for a date on Saturday night. The typographical flourish reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut. Kling unfortunately does not have much luck with women. In the following paragraph he is just about to be dumped:
He had forgotten, almost, what she looked like.
She came through the hospital’s chrome and glass revolving doors, and he saw at first only a tall blonde girl, full-breasted and wide-hipped, honey blonde hair clipped close to her head, cornflower-blue eyes, shoving through the doors and out onto the low, flat stoop, and he reacted to her the way he might react to any beautiful stranger stepping into the crisp December twilight, and then he realised it was Cindy, and his heart lurched.
Reading back through these selections, Sadie sounds like a comedy. But it begins in tragedy and ends in bathos. The climax, when it comes, is inevitable but flat. The guilty are apprehended but there is no sense of victory, and no feeling that rights have been wronged, even temporarily.
It was Christmas Day.
Sometimes, none of it made any goddamn sense at all.
If you like Ed McBain, Sergio at Tipping My Fedora is reviewing all of the 87th Precinct novels in order.
Final destination: A keeper