'Vespers' is Ed McBain's 42nd novel from the 87th Precinct


September 25, 1990|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Evening Sun Staff

"Vespers: A Novel of the 87th Precinct," by Ed McBain, 331 pages, William Morrow & Company Inc., New York, N.Y., $18.95.

ED MCBAIN knows how to launch these hard-boiled chronicles of murder on the mean streets: You kill somebody in the first chapter, with as ugly and bloody MO as possible. Sometimes you strangle the dear departed. Once McBain left an ax embedded in the corpse's head.

McBain kills a priest in the first couple pages of "Vespers," with a knife, in the rose garden of his rectory. Father Michael Birney seems to have made somebody unhappy.

"The priest was stabbed seventeen times, Pete," Detective Steve Carella tells his longtime boss Lieutenant Pete Byrnes. "That's anger."

Steve Carella ought to know. He's been doing this work at the 87th Precinct for about 34 years now. Carella was a detective in "Cop Hater," McBain's first 87th Precinct police novel back in 1956.

The dead person in the first chapter of "Cop Hater" was an 87th Precinct detective named Mike Reardon. Reardon was shot twice in the head with a .45, through and through as they say in the business. Not a pretty sight when they rolled him over.

In "Cop Hater," Carella had just asked Teddy Franklin, his lovely deaf-mute girlfriend, to to marry him. Their twins are 11 years old now. And Carella has seen too much in the forty-two 87th Precinct novels listed on a frontispiece of "Vespers." He weeps in his wife's arms. And she thinks: "Dear God, get him out of this job before it kills him."

McBain doesn't show any signs of extricating Carella very soon. Carella fits neatly into the description of the detective story hero Raymond Chandler, the pantheon author who created the private eye Philip Marlowe, wrote four decades ago.

He is the hero who goes down these mean streets, Chandler wrote, "who himself is not mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.

"He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. . . ."

Carella seems to have remained a Detective/Third Grade through all these 42 novels. He made $5,230 a year back in 1956. But in those days they still delivered milk in bottles to your door. We can only hope Carella has kept pace with inflation at least.

The storybook detective must have a sense of character, Chandler wrote, "or he would not know his job. He will take no man's money dishonestly. . . .

"He talks as the man of his age talks -- that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. . . ."

That's how Carella talks and, of course, McBain writes.

McBain's 87th Precinct novels are called "police procedurals," which is one of the genres that emerged after Dashiel Hammett yanked the detective novel out of the drawing room and dropped it in the gutter, to paraphrase Chandler.

Which may be one reason McBain has never been promoted from Police Novelist/First Grade into "serious" literature, as were Hammett and Chandler, Ross MacDonald, the creator of Lew Archer, and John MacDonald, the author of the Travis McGee novels, and Elmore Leonard, the reigning champ.

McBain is certainly more ingenious at plotting his novels than Ross McDonald, who had essentially only one plot -- the effect of the sins of the fathers or mothers on their sons and daughters, or their grandchildren. And he writes as well as John MacDonald, whose color-coded novels often turn gray, and just about as well as Leonard, whose crackling dialogue and pace make him tough at the in-fighting.

McBain also has a secret life as Evan Hunter, a "straight" novelist who may not be regarded as top grade, although he wrote the notable novel "The Blackbird Jungle," and such screenplays as "Strangers When We Meet" and "The Birds."

But McBain remains universally regarded as the nonpareil of police procedural novelists, and "Vespers" is a very good police novel, indeed. And perhaps the only thing that has changed is that the streets in his imaginary city have grown meaner over the years and Steve Carella more and more weary.

This novel is available at the Enoch Pratt Library.

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