Book Report: Where There’s Smoke by Ed McBain (1975)

Repeat month here at Nogglestead continues. I first read this book in middle school or high school, so it’s been a while since I’ve read it, but this is a repeat, albeit not a recent, unintentional repeat like Thunderball.

This was the first in his Benjamin Smoke series of books. The Smoke books didn’t go far; he would later go with another series character, Matthew Hope, and that would take off. Yes, I do have some of the Matt Hope books on my to-read shelves, and they will be reruns, too. But McBain was a writer who carried his quality on for more than 50 years, so I’m happy to reread many of them in a span of decades myself.

The schtick here is that Ben Smoke, a retired police lieutenant, does some freelance investigating because he wants to find a case he cannot solve. Most cases, he points out, are easily solved with dilligent police work and fall into the same ruts of criminal activity. Ergo, when he finds strange cases that might be impossible to solve, he gets involved and wants to be unable to solve it. Ultimately, though, he finds he can.

In this case (the first book, but not the first he has worked on; the book alludes to other capers preceding the printing), Smoke helps out a funeral director whose funeral home is broken into and a body stolen. Smoke investigates, even after the corpse is found abandoned in a vacant lot, because he uncovers the fact that many funeral homes in the area have been broken into without a loss of property except the one embalmed body. He works sort of with the police, many of whom remember him from his days on the force, but he gets shut out so they can don’t jeopardize the prosecution. In another funeral home burglary, a technician is killed, so the ante is upped to murder. Smoke beats the police to most of the witnesses and relevant people to question and, of course, solves the case.

It’s a quick read, a decent outing by McBain. I did pick up an additional thing this read that I would not have in my earlier run through it: Smoke hits a crow with his car and brings it into his home to nurse it back to health, which gives Smoke the opportunity to gripe several times about how he hates the Hitchcock film The Birds. Evan Hunter (Ed McBain) wrote that screenplay. It’s a bit of an injoke I would not have gotten in the middle 1980s.

Books mentioned in this review: