Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Farewell to the Detectives of the 87th Precinct

This is the fifty-fifth and last installment in Ed McBain's epic series featuring the detectives of the 87th Precinct. Set in the fictional city of Isola, which is closely modeled after New York City, the series began in 1956 with Cop Hater and would run for for forty-nine years to the publication of Fiddlers in 2005.

The series focused on a group of detectives who investigated a variety of crimes, but the stories almost inevitably involved homicide--often several of them within the same novel. McBain originally intended to rotate characters through the precinct, just as would occur in real life, but early on, when he attempted to kill off the person who had been the lead detective in the first couple of books, his publisher thankfully threw a fit and refused to allow him to do so. As a result the cast of characters remained pretty well fixed through the years, and it was always fun to pick up one of these books and meet a lot of old friends again. 

Through the years, the world of the police detective changed in significant ways, or at least the tools of the job did. Early on, the detectives of the 87th relied on pencils and paper records, and they were lucky to lift the occasional finger print from a crime scene or to find a bullet that ballistics could attempt to match. Tracking down records and information took forever, and they were always in search of the nearest pay phone or police call box. By the end of the series, of course, computers and cell phones were common; detectives could easily tap into federal databases, and crime scene forensics had made dramatic advances, particularly with the introduction of DNA gathering and testing. The rights of the accused had also advanced significantly with the introduction of the Miranda warning.

But while the technology might have advanced dramatically, the detectives of the squad remained fairly static. Over the course of nearly fifty years, the characters aged only about five. The lead character, Detective Steve Carella, was in his middle thirties when the series began and he had just turned forty when it ended. And for all the technological advances that the passing of time had brought, legwork, dogged persistence and intuition remained the detectives' principal tools.

It's a great cast and, while there were a few books that didn't quite measure up to the standards of the series generally, most of them were very good and some of them were downright excellent. McBain wrote with a wry sense of humor and with a clear attachment to the characters and to the city he had created. Through a very long career, he wrote a boatload of other novels and stories, but the 87th Precinct series was clearly his crowning achievement and millions of crime fiction fans have cherished these books. And even though some of these books are now over forty years old, they stand the test of time very well. While they might be dated, they're not "dated;" they're just as readable today as the were when they first appeared.

But, to invoke one of the oldest of all cliches, all good things must come to an end, and thus we arrive at Fiddlers. The book opens with the murder of a blind violinist who steps out for a cigarette break and takes two bullets in the face. The case falls to Steve Carella and Meyer Meyer of the 87th, but there are precious few clues and no witnesses. Everyone insists that the victim was beloved and that no one had any reason to kill him.

Then, before the detectives can make any progress at all on the killing, a cosmetics saleswoman is also shot twice in the face with the same Glock pistol that was used to murder the violinist. Nothing appears to link the victims to each other or to any of the other poor souls who will fall to the "Glock Killer" over the space of the next two weeks. The only thing the victims have in common is that they were all over fifty years old. The press, the mayor and the police brass are naturally in a state of panic and demand an immediate solution to the case, but it's going to take a lot of shoe leather and more than a little luck if the detectives of the 87th Precinct are going to bag their last killer and bring him to justice.

This completes my assignment of reading and reviewing all of the fifty-five books in this series. It's really been a lot of fun reading many of them for the first time and re-reading ones that I first enjoyed years ago, and I doubt that it will be all that long before I'm picking one of them off the shelf again. Four stars for Fiddlers and an enthusiastic five stars for one of the best and most enduring crime fiction series of all.

No comments:

Post a Comment