As a student of the genre it behove me to take a look at Ed McBain and his fifty-plus 87th Precinct police procedurals and what better place to start than with another recommendation from The Reader is Warned’s Top 15 Impossible crimes (see this previous post for more details).
Detectives Meyer, Kling, and Hawes are shooting the breeze in the squad room of the 87th Precinct when a woman comes in and calmly sits down at an empty desk and when questioned says that she is waiting for Steve Carella. They explain that she will have to wait outside like anyone else at which point she pulls out a .38 and relieves them of their weapons. She instructs them to call in any other officers on the floor so they call in Lieutenant Byrnes.
He recognises her as Virginia Dodge and she explains that she is going to kill Carella in revenge as her husband, who he put away, has just died in prison. Byrnes is prepared to call her bluff, she can’t shoot all four of them, and she reveals a bottle of nitro-glycerine in her bag.
“Don’t open that door, Lieutenant,” Virginia shouted “or I’ll fire into this bag and we can all go to Hell!”
He thought in that moment before twisting the door-knob, She’s lying. She hasn’t got any soup in that bag, where would she get any? And then he remembered that among her husband’s many criminal offences had been a conviction for safe-blowing. But she hasn’t any soup, he thought, that’s crazy. But suppose she does? But she wouldn’t explode it. She’s waiting for Carella. She wouldn’t… And then he thought simply, Meyer Meyer has a wife and three children. Slowly, he let his hand drop.
And thus begins a tense stand-off between a woman crazed by grief and men who have faced many dangers before but nothing quite like this.
Carella, meanwhile, is investigating a death in a locked-room: surely a simple suicide and yet he suspects murder.
The reader moves between these two strands: the tension at the station as the detectives each try in their own way to bring the hostage situation to an end and the Scott mansion where Carella tries to figure out how murder, if it is murder, could have been accomplished. Interestingly, the reader becomes privy to information that would support his theory, although this does not become available to him.
This book explores the fascinating moral question as Byrnes, who owes Steve an awful lot, and the other 87ers hve to decide whether to let Carella blindly enter into certain death or to risk their own lives to save him.
The story of one character is relevant in the light of the #MeToo movements and feels ahead of its time, as does the positive portrayal of Carella’s wife, Teddy, who is deaf and mute.
By no means traditional GAD fare, at only 141 pages it can be read in one sitting and I enjoyed it very much.
Quite how representative of the series as whole it is, I don’t know, and whilst I won’t be actively seeking out more McBain, I’d certainly pick up some more if I came across it.
What Else I’ve Been Reading Recently
Inspector Queen’s Own Case (1956) by Ellery Queen
Richard Queen has been forcibly retired at the age of sixty-three but is able to get back in the saddle unofficially when a new female acquaintance is the only member of a rich household who insists that the death of a baby boy is not a tragic accident but murder.
A simple tale – if it wasn’t then how would old Pa Queen solve it without Ellery’s help – but well told although part of the solution is pretty obvious.
The Judas Window (1938) by Carter Dickson
A visit to your prospective father-in-law for the first time might be a nerve-wracking experience but you wouldn’t expect it to land you in the dock accused of murder. Yet that is what happens to the unfortunate Jimmy Answell when he wakes up after his drink has been spiked to find Avory Hume dead with an arrow through the heart inside a room bolted from the inside.
Sir Henry Merrivale is foolhardy enough to defend Answell and so begins a trial that will go down in the annals of legal history.
Evidence has to be presented in a different way in a trial than in the course of a normal investigation and this leads up to the mid-point reveal which partially changes the view of the case but still leaves the central question open until the end. There is an ambiguity on the final page which I think can be interpreted to whatever extent the reader wants to.