Book Review: The McBain Brief by Ed McBain

To begin with, I want to admit that I love Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels. McBain’s mastered the novel form and can inject his lyrical descriptions of the City, he can explore characters at length (both in one novel and in the series), and can add secondary characters with a few deft brush strokes. He’s the master of the quick read, and contrary to what English Teachers everywhere might think, it’s not that smutty.

However, the short story collection The McBain Brief is not an Ed McBain book. As “Ed McBain” says in the introduction, most of these stories were published under Evan Hunter or his other pseudonyms originally. This means, of course, that the stories will lack the Ed McBain voice, although many of the characteristics are there: The recreated documents, the cops with Italian names, the city (although in the stories, it’s really New York, not New York rotated 90 degrees).

But the flavor of the stories isn’t McBain. Some of them date from the 1950s, when Evan Hunter was first starting his Ed McBain line of books, so the writing and plotting are rudimentary. I wrote stories like some of these back in high school, when I was reading Ed McBain and trying to imitate the police procedural, or at least the police detective, style (and may the Roger Williams/John Regen stories remain buried until my heirs want to exhume them to squeeze an extra book, The Early Noggle, out of my desiccated corpse).

This book’s got:

  • “Chalk”, the study of a sudden murder perpetrated by a madman, told in a psychotic flashback. These days, this goes straight to video.
  • “Eye Witness”, a short piece that’s obvious from the minute it starts.
  • “A Very Merry Christmas”, a brutal, senseless piece about a brutal, senseless murder. Perhaps it’s the point, but the tedium’s not the message, marshal.
  • “The Confession”, another obvious bit that mirrors something I wrote twice in high school. I wrote “Vigilante” in English for fun and in Spanish because I needed something to kill (hem) four pages for composition.

However, nestled among the lesser filler material, the book’s got a couple radio-worthy hits:

  • “First Offense”, the first story, is a passable study of what they used to call “JD” and what we now would call a super-predator. Nowadays, too, the body count’s higher in the newspapers.
  • “Hot Cars”, which struck me as slightly O. Henry-esque, but not quite. A light-hearted little raw deal story for a con man. Maybe not O. Henry. Maybe I am thinking E. Leonard. One of those dudes whose last name is a first name.
  • “Hot”, an absolutely Hemingwayesque depiction of life aboard a Navy vessel in Cuba (Gitmo, donchaknow) under a brutal, and quite killable, commanding officer.

So if you’re a McBain or Evan Hunter fan, you might want to pick it up to see how his early writing developed. It’s not a long-term committment; I read it in a couple of hours.

You might want to pick it up out of curiosity for what passed for gritty cop fiction fifty years ago. Criminey, I even read a bunch of Elizabeth Linington for amusement, so Evan knows I am a sucker for them. A story about a mother who killed her baby? Buddy, in the twenty-first century, evil mothers do them five at once. A kid shoots his sibling? Yeah, so? Someone’s into pornos? Man, I get worse than what McBain characterizes in “Still Life” in my Hotmail account every day, and that’s just from my blog fans (Tom Jones gets underwear thrown at him, I get pix of the hot sexy married virgin sorority girls of the world who like to cheat). The crimes depicted in this collection are becoming more quaint every year.