I’ve never really considered myself much of a mystery reader. Oh, I’ve read the collections of the original Sherlock Holmes tales and I’ve dipped into a few Agatha Christie novels, but the genre has never held much interest for me. However, as a teen I fell for men’s action adventure books, usually those written by Don Pendleton in his The Executioner series. At the time, such novels were sort of considered a sub-genre of mystery, as were hardboiled and noir tales.
Fast forward a couple of decades and I began to find myself interested in crime fiction, but still not specifically mysteries. Deciding it was time I checked out some of the better-known writers in the detective field, I turned to classic authors such as Mickey Spillane, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and the like. Then as things would have it, one day I was perusing the shelves in a used book store in Charleston, West Virginia, and I came across the novel KILLER’S CHOICE by Ed McBain. I had seen McBain’s name before, but I had yet to pick up one of his books. Needing something to read at the time, I chose to snag the McBain novel.
Since then I have been glad I picked up KILLER’S CHOICE. Nearly two decades later, McBain continues to be one of my favorite authors, and his 87th Precinct novels, of which KILLER’S CHOICE is one, have become my favorite series of books.
From 1956 to 2005 and the death of the author, 54 novels, multiple short stories and collections were written by McBain in the world of the 87th Precinct. The tales concern the detectives of the 87th Precinct in the city of Isola, a fictionalized version of Manhattan in New York City. Along the way some detectives came and went, but there was usually a central cast that remained more or less the same and there was a main character of sorts, Detective Steve Carella. The focus of each story was usually on Carella, but not always, occasionally with Steve playing only a background role. The characters never seemed to age, much like super heroes in comic books, but the technology did change with the times and the stories were usually up to date concerning real-world society, events, etc. In all their adventures, Carella and the other detectives faced a little bit of everything, serial killers, terrorists, street thugs, matricides, patricides, drug dealers, prostitutes, and much, much more. More than once they even faced off with a despicable serial villain who went by the name of The Deaf Man and who appeared in a half dozen or so 87th Precinct novels.
The series has proved popular enough over the decades it has spawned more than a few cinema films, television movies, and television shows, while also influencing numerous other detective shows.
Now that some basic history is out of the way, I have to ask and answer a question: I’ve read nearly all the 87th Precinct books, so what has made these novels my favorite series? It wasn’t just the author, because I’ve read other works by McBain and I enjoyed them, but not nearly as much as those 87th Precinct books. However, McBain’s style in the 87th Precinct books is much of what brings me back time and time again.
The writing style here isn’t complex, but it hits the nail on the head time and time again. McBain shifts perspectives from characters, but it’s never confusing. Sometimes he misleads by keeping a perspective character’s identity a secret, but that’s rare and works when he uses it. Over all the style is to the point, sometimes even curt, especially the dialogue which often runs along at breakneck speeds. Yet at other times things slow down, especially during tender moments between family members and sometimes between the cops involved, showing the strength of the relationships between these officers and those for whom they care. McBain seems to have a natural instinct for knowing when to speed a story up and when to slow it down.
Related to this are the characters themselves, specifically Steve Carella. Carella is a family man, but like many of the detectives with whom he works, he is something of an everyday joe, almost an everyman character. Most of these cops are working stiffs, they’ve seen everything under the sun and often enough are simply trying to get through their day. Sometimes the heat is on and the detectives are trying to get through their day without being shot, but more often they are just trying to get home to their spouses and kids or parents or significant others. Sometimes these officers have family troubles, and sometimes the criminal world which they walk against reaches into their personal lives. But always they are just everyday people trying to make their way through their lives.
They are not trying to be heroes. In fact, very often they intentionally go out of their way to not be a hero because they’ve learned that heroes usually get themselves killed. But despite this, and despite the fact they have family squabbles and paperwork and bosses who can be a pain in the keister, at the end of the day they still try to do the right thing.
This is what makes them heroes. Not because they carry a badge and gun, not because they are officers of the law, but because they are just like you and me and they keep up the good fight.
Not all of these characters are likable. They make mistakes. They screw up. Some are sexist or racist, as are some people in real life. And some of them occasionally are crooked or do the wrong thing for selfish reasons. In the world of the 87th Precinct, usually these types of characters aren’t the heroes, but sometimes they are, showing that even flawed individuals can sometimes do the right thing. Yet sometimes, yes, they are the villain, and usually they will eventually pay the price, but not always. Sometimes the bad guys get away. Sometimes a murder goes unsolved. Sometimes good people suffer while bad people win the day. Such is life in the 87th Precinct and such is life in the real world.
But even when the bad guys triumph in these novels, it helps to show the determination of the heroes. Despite the losses and the anguish and the awfulness, most of these detectives keep right on trying to do the right thing time after time.
And in my eyes, that also makes them heroes.
Maybe all of us should be a little more like them.