Ed McBain

November 25, 2013

I’ve always enjoyed detective stories: I was brought up on Sherlock Holmes, who is still my all-time favourite, but over the years have grown to appreciate Raymond Chandler, Ellis Peters and Ed McBain, all for different reasons. I used to have, may years ago, an extensive collection of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels, and at some point, eager to clear out and reduce the mountins of books overwhelming the house, got rid of them. I’m kicking myself now, as I hunt out cheap second-hand copies again, to fuel my re-discovered pleasure. Let this be a lesson to everyone…

Detective stories work in a number of different ways: the earlier development seems to have been the sleuth and the side-kick (Holmes and Watson, Brother Cadfael and Hugh Berengar the Sheriff); later on there are the lone heroes such as Philip Marlowe, and then there are the groups of detectives working together, such as McBain’s 87th Precinct crowd.

His city seems to be based on New York (I think) and he develops the feel of a tough and hectic city and overworked police and detectives swamped by a wide range of crimes. Mainly he offers murders, and gritty realism in sixties style. The detection, clues and reader participation in the mystery-solving are par for the course; the detectives are well-characterised and individualised, and their interplay is part of what makes the novels work. Some are better than others, and some are pot-boilers. In the end, I like them because they are different from the others I’ve mentioned earlier, and, as with all detective stories in my experience, the details of the plots are soon forgotten, allowing me to re-read and still enjoy them…

In a somewhat superior way, perhaps, I’ve always classed detective fiction as light reading, for days when I want a rest from more serious reading, but I’m coming to realise that I’ve been unfair: there is serious craft involved in devising the plots and sowing the clues to satisfy the reader, and then slowly bringing matters to a satisfactory and convincing conclusion. For me the best, in literary terms, has to be Chandler… and it may be time to revisit him soon.

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