Monday, August 4, 2014

The Mugger by Ed McBain: A review

The MuggerThe Mugger by Ed McBain
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book was of interest to me mostly for its historical perspective. It was published in 1956, the second in Ed McBain's 87th Precinct series of police procedurals. It seemed very dated to me, even more so than the first in the series, Cop Hater, but, as I kept reminding myself, it was of its historical period and this is, I think, the way that male writers of thrillers or crime fiction wrote in the mid-20th century - with gender and racial stereotypes intact and unchallenged.

Even acknowledging all that though, I still found myself irritated by the expression of those attitudes. I was especially offended by the descriptions of the women characters in the book - all breasts and bottoms and legs. Especially legs. Apparently McBain was a leg man. Not that such attitudes aren't still apparent among certain writers today, but, on the whole, they do a better job of disguising it.

The story here is as the title says, The Mugger. This particular mugger preys on women who are out walking alone at night. As the tale begins, there have already been several incidents and the city is on edge because of them.

No one has been seriously hurt in the muggings. The mugger comes at his victims from behind in the darkness. He attacks them, hits them and warns them to be quiet. He grabs their purses and then, while they are on the ground, he bows from the waist and says, "Clifford thanks you, madam," and makes his escape. But then he hits one victim too hard and puts her in the hospital. Then a young woman, only seventeen years old, is killed in what appears to be a similar incident and the police search turns deadly earnest as they search for a murderer.  

Before the young woman was murdered, a young police patrolman named Bert Kling was asked by a friend to talk to his sister-in-law. The man's wife is worried about her sister and thinks she may be in trouble. She hopes that the teenager might open up to Bert. The plan doesn't work, however. The girl will not talk to him even though he can see that she is very troubled. He goes on his way and the next thing he hears is that the girl, Jeannie, has been killed - perhaps by the mugger.

Bert feels a responsibility and determines to investigate, even though it's not his case and, since he's only a uniformed patrolman, he doesn't really have any right to be involved. But he is very ambitious to become a detective and he wants to bring the girl's killer to justice. And - spoiler alert - he manages to do just that in what is clearly meant to be a surprising twist. In fact, the solution seemed pretty clear to me fairly early in the book.

With this series, Ed McBain set the pattern for many police procedurals to come and he's still inspiring writers of the genre today. He continued writing the series right up until his death in 2005 and I think it will be very interesting to see how his writing evolved over those many years. As I stated earlier, these first books seem hopelessly dated in attitude and outlook and yet I suspect they are true reflections of their time. I would assume that, throughout the years, the books continued to hold up a mirror to their times, and that will be a worthwhile theme for the reader to pursue.


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