Prior to a couple of weeks ago, I'd only read three books by American Grand Master mystery writer Ed McBain: THE GUTTER AND THE GRAVE, DOWNTOWN and ANOTHER PART OF THE CITY. I recall enjoying them all and wanting to read more of his work. I had the opportunity to read three McBain mystery novels in a row recently and, once again, I enjoyed them all.
The first was CUT ME IN, originally published in 1955 as THE PROPOSITION. It was recently published for the first time in over sixty years in a handsome trade paperback edition by Hard Case Crime (have I mentioned how much I love this publisher?) with a beautiful cover painting by the legendary Robert McGinnis.
In CUT, literary agent Josh Blake is forced to play detective to solve the murder of his business partner, Del Gilbert and recover an important missing contract. There are the usual twists and turns, the dialogue is sharp and snappy and there's no shortage of beautiful (and treacherous) women. The real pleasure to be found here is the portrait of the mid century publishing industry that McBain paints for us. It's amusing and insightful and shows that nothing much has really changed in the business over the last sixty years.
The next book was AX, (1964), one of McBain's 87th Precinct mysteries, a series which really made his name and reputation. The 87th Precinct novels take place in a generic big city and feature a rotating cast of city detectives who solve various crimes buy using by-the-book police procedural methods. Similar to Jack Webb's television series DRAGNET but with more color, action and humor. In this one, a building superintendent is killed by an ax blow to the head, a killing that leads detectives Steve Carella and Cotton Hawes down a twisting path of suspects and motives.
Again, the best thing about AX isn't so much the mystery (although it's a solid one), as a scene where Carella and Hawes discuss a film entitled THE LOCUSTS. As their conversation goes along, you realize the movie they're describing is a thinly disguised version of Alfred Hitchcock's THE BIRDS (1963), a film which McBain, under his real name, Evan Hunter, wrote the screenplay for. By he way, I had a chance to meet Hunter at a screening of THE BIRDS at the Paramount several years ago. I got him to sign the film notes I'd written for the event. Very nice guy.
The last book was BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1988), one of McBain's Matthew Hope novels. Hope is a Florida lawyer and all of his adventures feature titles from various fairy tales. In this one, a beautiful, badly beaten woman comes to Hope to file a complaint against her husband. Hope does so but the next day, the woman is found dead, bound and burned to death. Her husband is, of course, the prime suspect. Oh, and one more thing. The woman was white, her husband is a black man.
As Hope digs deeper into the case, he uncovers a group of interracial swingers and tangled relationships. He's not a criminal attorney and he's really in over his head but he has help from a sympathetic police detective and the case is finally solved.
All three of these books were standard whodunit mysteries. There's a murder, a suspect (or several), lots of red herrings and blind alleys and a final solution. All three are well told and kept me turning the pages. McBain brings all of his characters to life, gives us insight into how literary agencies, police departments and attorneys work, mixes in action, sex and humor and delivers solid, entertaining books. I can't wait to read another Ed McBain mystery. Highly recommended.