Book Report: Three from the 87th by Ed McBain (1971)

I inherited this book from my Aunt Dale; I don’t know if this was her personal copy or if she bought it to sell on eBay, but I do know that she liked Ed McBain, or at least owned one or more of his books; I remember in particular that I read her copy of Lightning when I was young and impressionable.

This collection includes, oddly enough, three of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels: Fuzz (1968), Jigsaw (1970), and Hail, Hail, The Gang’s All Here (1971). That’s right, McBain (or Hunter, if you prefer) has been writing these books for fifty years now, and to a certain demographic, the books haven’t aged too badly.

I mean, of course, to people from Generation X and before, these books have aged well. We remember computers coming into the fore in our lifetimes; before that, typewriters. Criminey, I wrote my first couple of college papers on an old Smith Corona before I could spring the thousands of dollars (with a loan, no less) for the 286-10 running MS-DOS 5.0 and LotusWorks that would last the rest of my college career). So these stories, which feature cops handwriting forms and typing on typewriters, remain relevant and undated to me. I pity writers now (myself included) whose crime fiction will seemingly be ever dated from this point on–what, he was typing on a computer and not just intuiting through the Gibsonterface?

These three novels are short; the whole book runs under 500 pages. But that’s something else I remember: novels running under 200 pages each. Now, the publishers think you’ll wilt if you spend $30 on fewer than 350 pages. Come to think of it, I would, too. Perhaps hardback publishers are pricing themselves out of the entertainment marketplace by keeping their book prices in line with that of video games.

But I digress.

These three novels represent not only McBain’s deftness, but the power of the third person narrator. Because these books don’t rely on a single character’s viewpoint, McBain has more latitude to try different things than, say, a first person narrator writer like Robert Crais.

The novels appear in this book in reverse chronological order (hence, pardon me while I discuss them in the opposite order in which they appear in the book). Fuzz depicts a series of assassinations in the city perpetrated by the Deaf Man, who will become the 87th Precinct’s nemesis over the years. This is his second appearance (I believe, and textual evidence supports it). Jigsaw features a couple of detectives from the 87th Precinct, supported by others of course, investigating a particular crime. Hail, Hail, The Gang’s All Here depicts a 24-hour period in the 87th Precinct, with two shifts of detectives dealing with the crimes that occur on their shift. The third person narrator allows a lot of latitude of who the author can include and exclude and even who can die during the course of the book. Authors who use the first person narrator shortcut its immediacy by including third person sections (see also Robert Crais and, I daresay, Robert B. Parker). McBain p0wns you.

The novels within the book do present an interesting artifact, though, as they depict life in The City (a proxy for New York) in the 1960s and 1970s. Wow, it did seem like a dangerous place to live….until this fellow named Giuliani showed up. McBain found something to write about afterwards, as his books don’t stop with Giuliani’s election, but I cannot help but read them in that context.

So would I recommend the book? Unabashedly. Although my wonderful and well-read mother-in-law has, on occasion, condemned Ed McBain as smut, I still laud the poetry interspersed with the gritty. Also, she was a high school teacher who had the public’s morals to protect. Me? I am a poor boy from the ghetto who wanted to escape with his writing. I cannot think of a better example of the third person narrator in crime fiction series than Ed McBain. Any of them, or any three of them in one volume.

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