Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Detectives of the 87th Precinct Are Confronted by Three Complex Cases Involving a Great Deal of Mischief

This book, which was first published in 1993, is the 45th entry in the 87th Precinct series. A lot has changed in the thirty-seven years since Cop Hater, the first in the series, was released, and as the books progress, one can watch the evolution of the technology used by police to fight crime from index cards and penciled notes to the advent of computers and much more sophisticated forensics.

The books themselves have changed as well. Cop Hater was very much a book of the old-school pulp novel tradition from an age when books like this were mostly sold of off spinning racks in the neighborhood drug store. Many of these books were little longer than a novella, and could easily be consumed in a single evening. Cop Hater, for example, told a gripping story in a bare 236 pages.

By the early 1990s, though, crime novels had become a more respectable form of entertainment, now enjoyed even by relatively sophisticated readers, many of whom would have never admitted to reading the "trashy" pulp novels of the Fifties. The books themselves had begun to bulk up, perhaps as a sign of their growing respectability, and Mischief weighs in at 420 pages--almost twice as long as the book that first introduced the detectives of the 87th Precinct. This was not necessarily a bad thing; a good book is a good book irrespective of its length, while a bad one is still going to suck no matter how brief it might be.

Judging by this book though, McBain might have been better off sticking to the shorter form. He winds up producing a much longer book not by telling a more complex story, but rather by cramming together three entirely separate investigations into one novel. Even this wouldn't necessarily be a problem; in the earlier books, the detectives were often working a couple of cases at a time.

The difficulty lies in the fact is that all three of these cases are very convoluted and McBain leaps from one investigation to another, often several times in the same chapter, sometimes devoting only a few short paragraphs to one case before jumping on to the next. This is further complicated by the fact that there's a large cast of characters involved and several different teams of detectives investigating the cases, and in the end it all gets extremely confusing at points. There's no relaxing into this book; you've got to be constantly paying attention to keep everything straight.

One thing that hasn't changed involves the detectives themselves. In thirty-seven years, they haven't changed a bit. Casting an eye around the squad room, McBain notes that all of the detectives are in their middle thirties, which is pretty much where they were when the series began. (In fairness, this is not entirely McBain's fault. His initial plan was to have a rotating cast of characters, and detectives would come and go just as one would expect to see on a real police force. Very early in the series, he killed off one of the detectives who had become the lead protagonist up to that point, and his publisher threw a fit. They made him rewrite the ending of the book so that the detective would live and could go on to star in another fifty-odd books. Like most fans of this series, I've grown to really enjoy this cast of characters and so I'm glad McBain was forced to deviate from his original plan, but it might have been interesting to see how the series would have evolved had he stuck to his guns.)

The first of the disparate plots in the book involves the 87th Precinct's persistent nemesis, the Deaf Man, who returns to taunt the detectives with a great new scheme. He spends most of the book running them around in circles and, as always, it's fun to watch the battle of wits that results.

In another case, someone is killing graffiti writers who are defacing the walls and other blank spaces of the city. Naturally, some citizens are applauding the killer and feel that the "writers" are getting exactly what they deserve. But the cops still feel the need to track down the killer and put a stop to his vigilante justice. Finally, someone is dumping elderly people with dementia in public places around the city and attempting to destroy any means of identifying these people who will then have to be cared for by the general public. Some of these poor people are being left out in the elements and after one elderly woman dies, the case becomes increasingly serious.

This is not a bad book by any stretch of the imagination, but McBain has clearly padded the daylights out of it, perhaps to accommodate emerging trends. It would have been a much more entertaining read at 320 pages than at 420. Of the three investigations, the one involving elder dumping is the least interesting and it has the feel of being tacked on to the rest of the story. The book would have been much tighter and more enjoyable had this whole plot line been left on the cutting room floor. In the end, Mischief falls into the middle of the pack of the books in this series, not the worst, but certainly not among the best.

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