Evan Hunter published over 130 books under a variety of pseudonyms (he was born Salvatore Albert Lombino). Over a third of his prodigious output was dedicated to the 87th Precinct mysteries he wrote as "Ed McBain," which effectively set the template for the police procedural genre.
Because the books are romantic and occasionally sentimental new readers might be forgiven for thinking that the series, which after all began in far off 1956, might only offer characters as two-dimensional as those paragons of virtue found on Dragnet. But they'd be wrong – dead wrong. The 87th Squad, in effect a "corporate hero" with Detective Steve Carella as first among equals, deals in tragedy and farce, sometimes in the same book. Stories can be remarkably tough on its characters, and readers, while also creating fair-play detective puzzles in the style of Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr without forsaking realism. All these traits are handsomely displayed in See Them Die (1960) and Lady, Lady, I Did It! (1961), the 13th and 14th volumes in the series, both re-released by Thomas & Mercer on Kindle.
See Them Dieis intense and claustrophobic, detailing a siege in Spanish Harlem that puts readers on the spot by delaying the killing that would usually jumpstart the narrative. Instead we are sucked into the atavistic impulses of a large crowd waiting the seemingly inevitable slaying of Puerto Rican hoodlum and local legend Pepe Miranda. The neighborhood kids fear and emulate him and in the sweltering July heat Detectives Carella and Frankie Hernandez are pitted against their racist bully of a colleague, Andy Parker, to battle their own demons.
While the anticipated murder is delayed in that novel, in Lady, Lady, I Did It! McBain brings it powerfully center stage when one of the series most sympathetic recurring characters is gunned down in a seemingly random bookstore shooting. Exploring the emotional devastation wrought on the team, the author once again wrong-foots readers' expectations. Refusing to turn the book into a sentimental eulogy for a beloved series mainstay, instead he soberly works through the hurt and solves a complex whodunit to show that, as tragic as it may be, life (and the 87th Precinct series) will in fact continue to be part of what he calls, “the classic ritual of blood.”
McBain/Hunter was a true master of the form--all mystery fans should welcome this reprinting of his books.
Sergio Angelini blogs about mystery, crime and suspense in all media at Tipping My Fedora