Well, I’ve been in the mood for mystery and suspense of late and there was a recent discussion on Twitter about Ed McBain that whet my appetite and made me go looking to see what titles he had in ebook. Surprisingly, he had quite a few. Because this is a long-running series revolving around the 87th Precinct, I just closed my eyes, picked one, paid for it and dived right in.
“Hark!” is like the nth book in the 87th Precinct series set in the fictional city of Isola . Surprisingly, I was able to dive right in and follow along just fine. Sure there are established characters in here – quite a handful actually – but I wasn’t lost. The first chapter grips you by the throat and doesn’t let go. The theme is revenge. Gloria Stanford betrayed her partner in crime during a heist. She’d left him for dead and walked away with the loot. When her accomplice catches up with her, she tries to offer him the leftover cash but he shoots her twice in the chest and takes off. Adam Fen or as he is referred to by many as the “Def Man” is baaaack.
Detective/Second Grade Stephen Carella and the rest of the police squad of the 87th Precinct begin to receive missives after the murder of Stanford. The letters are all addressed to Carella. It’s a game of cat and mouse and Carella must figure out what the Def Man is up to next (and it can’t be any good). Their source for most of the quotes from the letters comes from Shakespeare’s plays courtesy of Carella’s son, Mark, who shows him how to use keywords and search phrases on the Internet. The villain also tends to use anagrams and palindromes to get his message(s) across as well. He’s a regular word smith, that one.
Most of the detecting is done in the squad room. Fancy that. For every missive received, they all congregated around Carella’s desk. There’s moments of humor to alleviate the tediousness, like the one scene where someone asks when is the first day of Spring? (in reference to the note they’ve received) and nobody knows the answer, so they all go looking for a calendar. As usual, women are treated differently in a precinct full of men and that rankles. Eileen Burke, the only woman in her precinct, is asked to use her “woman’s eye” to detect anything strange in the Stanford case that might have been missed by the men. She recognizes this sexist remark for what it is:
“So why else might he have killed her? That’s what I want you to bring your woman’s eye to.”
“I understand, sir. It’s like what the Walt Disney studio did a few years back.”
“The movie company.”
“They hired a nineteen-year old girl to bring a teenager’s sensibility to a script a man had written for them.”
“Oh,” Byrnes said.
“Turned out she was in her thirties. The female writer they hired.”
“Oh,” Byrnes said again.
“But they figured a man couldn’t possibly know what a woman was thinking or feeling.”
“That’s right,” he said.
“Even if he was a writer.”
There are a lot of quotable scenes in here but this will be the last one where the team are gathered around and are trying to understand this latest letter sent to them from the Def Man. Eileen and another cop name Willis are secretly having an affair and what conversation they add smacks of sexual innuendo:
“A sword now?” Meyer asked.
“From spears to arrows to a sword,” Carella said.
He was already at the computer.
“Shouldn’t it be ‘Has a sharp edge?” Genero asked.
“Hath is what they said back in those days,” Parker explained.
“Sounds like a lisp,” Genero said.
“Maybe he’s gay,” Parker suggested. “This guy whose sword hath a sharp edge.”
“Don’t forget it’s long, too,” Eileen said, looking all wide-eyed and innocent.
“And reaches far,” Willis added.
Kling darted a look at both of them.
Who would have thought I’d be laughing while reading this book. It is full of win. The added humor in here was a surprise and a plus. Moving on. While the mystery was intriguing, it’s these guys personal lives that had me turning the pages quickly. Starting with Detective Carella, who is one of the featured and recurring characters in the 87th Precinct novels, is having a personal crisis. His mother and sister are getting married and he’s offered to pay for both weddings. His mother remarrying again doesn’t sit well with him and he misses his father deeply. This is one of the downsides to jumping into the middle of a series in that you miss out on the build-up of the relationships in here. Plus the added nuances, events and idiosyncrasies that make-up the character and give them life.
Another surprise for me was the diverse cast of characters. A black woman, Sharyn Cook, the Deputy Surgeon General, is dating a white police officer, Bert Kling of the 87th. I would have loved to have gone back and read about how that relationship got started as Kling loves her a lot and in here, he starts following her because she has lied to him about her whereabouts lately. He feels threatened by her colleague, a black doctor she is secretly meeting with and the two together are just a bit too friendly for Kling’s taste. That story arc was interesting as well.
Then there’s the media aspect of the story. Honey Blair, a popular reporter for Channel Four news, is dating cop, Cotton Hawes, of the 87th. On two different occasions he’s been shot at with Honey in the car. Honey suspects and thinks that she is the target of the shooter until she gets a note that says otherwise. Instead of turning over the note to the police, her program director decides to suppress it and sensationalize it, making Honey out to be the victim to increase her celebrity and ratings. Poor Hawes. He’s had to investigate the shootings himself while no one considers him a target or even important enough to be the target. Another, somewhat, comical storyline.
Anyway, there’s a lot in here worth discussing but I will stop there. I’d read McBain before in Fat Ollie’s Book and sure enough, Ollie Wendall Weeks of the 88th has a significant part in the story. While Carella and the gang are trying to break the code in the squad room, Ollie actually tries to track down Melissa Summers, a whore that Adam Fen aka ‘the Def Man’ has picked up and is using to help him in yet another heist. During his investigation, Ollie actually stumbles upon the person who stole his precious manuscript (Fat Ollie’s Book). Now, the relationship between Melissa and the Def Man was interesting in that things didn’t turn out as I had expected. Let’s just say that from the start and to the end of their working relationship, I wasn’t quite prepared for the twist but I should have seen it coming.
The dialogue is crisp, sharp and realistic. I love, love, loved the dialogue in here. I also like how McBain writes his female protagonists. He didn’t cater to stereotypes. He also doesn’t hold back on the racial attitudes/issues in society and especially in relationships. Why haven’t I read more McBain? I kept asking myself. I plan to buy all that I see available in ebook, prices be damned. Alas, the series ended with the author’s death in 2005. Unless someone can say otherwise, I believe McBain had the longest running series with the 87th Precinct.
Anyway, Hark! gets a B+ from me. Although the story was good, the mystery was moderately challenging and the dialogue was great, the book was easy to put down. However, I did think about it whenever I had free moment. This is one series I wish I could start from the beginning and is worth starting at the beginning. I wanted to know about Stephen Carella and how he met his wife, Teddy, who is mute/deaf. She’s never heard her husband’s voice. How sad. I found his character and his life very interesting.
Anyway, if you haven’t read Ed McBain yet, you really should if you enjoy mystery. Hark! is good place to read/start but again, the first book was published some umpteen years ago (Cop Killer) and the early books are not all in digital format. Might have to buy paper (gag). McBain was regarded as one of the best mystery writers and was revered for his cop fiction. He loves to compare/contrast between real cops and television cops because he had put forth a lot of effort to get it right. Anyway, this was a good book. B+.