Box Of Paperbacks Book Club: Shotgun by Ed McBain (1969)

Box Of Paperbacks Book Club: Shotgun by Ed McBain (1969)

(Not long ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing over 75 vintage science fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number ten.)

From 1956 until his death in 2005, Salvatore Lombino, also known as Evan Hunter, also known as Ed McBain regularly checked in with the policemen at the 87th Precinct, an occasionally embattled outpost in an unnamed city that, for readers who knew how to squint, looked a lot like New York. Lombino began his career as a soldier, teacher, and editor, then legally changed his name to Evan Hunter after choosing it as a regular pen name (there were others), then adopted the McBain name for the 1956 novel Cop Hater. The first 87th precinct novel, it introduced the cast of characters that pop up, and expand, as the series went on.

Shotgun is only the second 87th Precinct novel I've read. My first, years ago, was Eight Black Horses from 1985. I came to it via a comic book called The Question, a late-'80s revival of a Steve Ditko-created character. It was scripted at the time by Denny O'Neil, best known for a long run writing and editing Batman and for bringing social consciousness to superhero comics in the early-'70s with a run on Green Lantern/Green Arrow in which the heroes traveled around battling ills like drug addiction. O'Neil would recommend a book in the letters column of each issue and I read a bunch of them. Looking back, it was a mixed bag. He started me reading Herman Hesse in high school, but I haven't felt the need to go back and the less said about Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance the better. But McBain is something I've meant to return to ever since. I remember being drawn in by Horses' tight plotting and the attention to detail. It was a brisk, gripping read. I guess other books got in the way of a return trip.

This one reminded me why I wanted to come back. McBain has a no-nonsense prose style perfectly suited to his world-weary cops without feeling the least bit put on. McBain doesn't try to be hard-boiled. He just describes a hard-boiled world the way he finds it. Here the action revolves around a double-homicide, a young couple murdered in their apartment by shotgun blasts fired at close range, a crime scene McBain describes in vivid, but not excessive detail. On the case: Regular McBain hero Steve Carella and Bert Kling, one of a rotating series of partners.

They proceed about the case methodically. McBain's fiction falls in continuum of crime procedurals somewhere between Jules Dassin's 1948 film The Naked City and Law And Order. The end may not catch anyone by surprise now–maybe in 1969–but McBain makes getting there a pleasure.

Part of the pleasure comes from his attention the minds of the cops as well as the criminals. There's a great chapter that has virtually nothing to do with the case at hand in which Kling shows up early, and unexpectedly, at his girlfriend Cindy's apartment and wants to make love. She doesn't and the subtle push and pull that follows captures some of the miscues and bad timing that can throw off even the happiest couples. She eventually gives in but her consent leaves him feeling "like a hulking rapist who had shambled up out of the sewer" and he doesn't press on. Kling does the right thing, but it still leaves him resentful.

That same chapter finds Cindy laying out a potential doctoral thesis on "The Detective As Voyeur," her argument derived partly from the Michaelangelo Antonioni film Blow Up. Her ideas may not have aged that well, but, for me at least, that only adds to the book's appeal. (If you want to know what was on people's mind in the past, look at what they read on trains and lined up for on a Friday night, not history books.) Elsewhere McBain throws in some subtle liberal politics with snapshots of urban decay that all but declare the world was going to hell. It's way too close to preaching, something McBain's cops don't do, at least not here. Here they're just doing their job. Maybe McBain thought he was just doing his.

No more McBain in the box, sadly. And if nobody minds I'm going to switch the next two books around. Sorry. I'll explain later.

Next: The Valley Where Time Stood Still by Lin Carter Then: The Long Afternoon Of Earth (a.k.a. Hothouse) by Brian Aldiss And then: Donovan's Brain, by Curt Siodmak