My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Now this is more like it! It seems for years I've been reading about the 87th Precinct series - what a groundbreaker it was and how Ed McBain has been such an influence on writers of mysteries since the 1950s when this series started. But after reading the first two entries in the series, I confess I was disappointed. As far as I could see they were mostly just interesting for their historical value, but I didn't find them particularly entertaining.
Then I picked up The Pusher, third in the series. He had me with the first sentence. And with the first couple of pages of that wonderfully evocative description of the city in winter, I was hooked. I could have read the book in one sitting, except I had to stop and do other things for a while. I rushed back to it as quickly as I could.
It seemed to me that McBain really hit his stride with this book. The 87th Precinct and the city began to come to life for me. I began to care about the characters.
The story starts with a patrolman walking a beat a few days before Christmas. It is bone-numbingly cold. He sees a light that shouldn't be there and goes to investigate and finds a young Hispanic man's body in a tenement basement. There is a rope around his neck and a syringe on the cot beside him. At first, it appears to be a suicide, but an autopsy reveals he had a massive dose of heroin which actually killed him and the rope around his neck was not tied in a way that the victim could have done it. It was murder.
Detective Steve Carella and newly minted detective Bert Kling catch the initial assignment. Carella has a lot of questions about the scene of the crime. Why was it set up as an obviously phony hanging? There are fingerprints all over the syringe that was found but whose are they? There is no record of them in police files. The victim was a penny ante pusher of heroin. Who was his supplier?
As Carella and the other detectives pursue answers to those questions and others, another murder occurs. This time it is a young Hispanic woman, a known prostitute. She was savagely slashed. Much of her blood had drained away before she was discovered and taken to the hospital, but she did not survive and was not able to speak. Turns out that she was the sister of the first victim - which only raises more questions.
Carella hits the streets in search of the dead pusher's possible supplier - a punk who goes by the name of Gonzo. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Byrnes of the Precinct is receiving phone calls implicating his teenage son in the crimes. He must make the decision of whether or not to reveal this to Carella as he struggles to save his drug-addicted son.
As the painfully slow step-by-step process of sorting evidence and following up clues continues, there will be even more drama for the 87th Precinct when another dead body turns up and then one of their own in shot. This is engrossing stuff. I didn't want to put the book down until all the issues were resolved.
Interestingly, in an afterword, McBain reveals that the ending of the story was not the one that he originally wrote. His publisher argued against that ending and convinced him to change it. Good decision.
The writing here is just sparkling. I found myself rereading descriptive passages time and again, just for the pure pleasure of the way the words were strung together. Okay, I do begin to see why so many writers of mysteries revere Ed McBain.
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