And we’re off!!!

I’ve dropped into the habit of starting off my reading for our club weeks with a revisit to an Agatha Christie; she’s one of those authors, much like Maigret, who seems to have a book published in just about every year we choose! The novel she published in 1956 was “Dead Man’s Folly”, a book I probably haven’t read in decades; but I thought I would add a slight twist to my reading by also revisiting a very different crime writer – Ed McBain.

In 1956, Christie was probably at the height of her repuration; she had numerous classic titles like “Murder on the Orient Express”, “Death on the Nile” and “And Then There Were None” (with its former “Ten Little….” titles) behind her, and many more great mysteries to come. In contrast, Ed McBain, although an experienced author, would make his first step into releasing his police procedural series featuring the detectives of the 87th Precinct with the book “Cop Hater”; and his work is very different from Christie’s, just showing the range there can be in crime writing.

Christie needs no introduction; McBain may well do, because I actually don’t know how much he’s read or how he’s viewed nowadays. He was born Salvatore Albert Lombino, but legally changed his name to Evan Hunter in 1952; under that name, he’s probably best known as the author of “The Blackboard Jungle” and he continued to write as Hunter (as well as other aliases). However, as Ed McBain he produced a series of 56 books featuring the 87th Precinct squad and I confess to owning them all… (plus several other little spinoffs…)

The 87th Precinct was located in an unnamed fictional city (generally reckoned to represent New York) and was a real ensemble series which inspired the hit TV show, “Hill Street Blues” (as well as an earlier black and white TV series which is very sweet but not as hard edged as the books!) I read them all decades ago; so I did wonder how I would find a re-encounter, and whether my tastes would have changed or I would find the books dated…

Dead Man’s Folly by Agatha Christie

This particular Christie was published about two-thirds of the way into the writer’s career, and her famous detective Hercule Poirot was well-established. “Dead Man’s Folly” sees him partnered again with the crime novelist Ariadne Oliver, a character generally agreed to be based on Christie herself and who would often share the spotlight with Poirot in later books. Mrs. Oliver has been invited down to Nasse House in Devon to stage a murder hunt at a summer fete held by the lord of the manor, Sir George Stubbs; however, her woman’s instincts tell her something is not as it seems and she summons Poirot down to help. Under the guise of visiting celebrity prize-giver, Poirot is introduced to the motley crew of what will become suspects, including Mrs. Folliat, the previous owner of the house; the Legges, a couple experiencing marriage difficulties who are staying nearby; locals including the MP Mr. Masterton; and Sir George’s vacant and fickle wife, Hattie. Inevitably, there is a murder, which Poirot is chastened not to have prevented; and the tangled plot, with alibis and secrets stretching long into the past, will take all his ingenuity to untangle.

One of the joys of reading this book (apart from knowing you’re in the hands of the Queen of Crime!) is the portrait she paints of Nasse House; because this was based on Christie’s own beloved Greenway in Devon, and her love for the location shines through (and is perhaps reflected in the attitudes and behaviour of one of the characters…) The mystery itself zips along entertainingly, and it’s the kind of plot she does so well; she’s so brilliant at building those twisty-turny stories where everything links into past events and it takes all her detective’s power to unravel them. This is no exception, and I had forgotten the plot completely so the reveal was a treat. What I also loved being reminded of was how funny an author Christie is; she’s not afraid to send up her characters and detectives, and so reading “Dead Man’s Folly” was just perfect. It probably doesn’t rank among her top mysteries, but even lesser Christie is good in my book!

Cop Hater by Ed McBain

Impressively enough, McBain published *three* 87th Precinct books in 1956, but this was the first and introduced readers not only to the setting but also to some of the regular characters. The main detective, who will feature all through the series, is Steve Carella, and as a seasoned reader I recognise several names who will recur! The setting is a July in the city, where the heat is oppressive and tempers short. In these days of primitive air conditioning, everyone is suffering and matters are not helped when someone begins to kill cops…

These are hard crimes to solve; is it a maniac who just hates the police? Is there a connection with a criminal who’s had dealings with each victim? Or is this the work of one of the teenage gangs causing havoc in the streets? Carella and those close to him will be put in danger trying to solve the case, and things will get very tense before any resolution is found.

One thing I remembered straight away was just what a good writer McBain generally was. His prose is economic yet often evocative; he can nail character brilliantly in a few words; and his characters and the city quickly come alive for the reader. The crime itself is an interesting one and I shan’t say too much about it except to note that McBain uses a particular crime-writing trope which appears in a very famous Christie book so there’s a strange connection between two very different authors! The narrative was often spare and effective, the denouement came along more quickly than I expected (in those days McBain wasted no words, though that did change later), and the characters in peril didn’t suffer too much fortunately!

This is of course a first novel in a series, and in many ways it’s a gentle introduction to his writing but it also lays out a template for where the series will go. The police are human and flawed; there are no black and white lines of good and evil; and the city will be as much a character in the stories as the various players. Already, in what is something of a scene-setting book, the various detectives are starting to fall into the roles they’ll mostly stay with during the series; and I do think I would love to re-read the books in publication order one day (rather as I would like to with Christie!)

There was, I have to say, one element I thought I might struggle a little with, and I was right; McBain’s portrayal of women is not something with which I feel entirely comfortable. It has to be borne in mind that this book was written a *long* time ago, when attitudes were different; nevertheless his women are very objectified, defined often by their physical attributes and in relation to their sexuality; and towards the end of the book this element becomes even more pronounced. I was probably less sensitive to this when I was younger but I find it less easy to deal with nowadays. It won’t stop me reading McBain, but it’s something I wish he’d toned down a little.

So, my first reads for 1956 were an excellent pair of very different crime books, and I loved re-encountering both authors. Re-reading can be a dangerous thing; you never quite know if an author will live up to your memory of them and their books. Fortunately, though, Christie never fails to please, and “Cop Hater” has reminded me how much I love Ed McBain’s writing. Now, if we’d made this Club a fortnight long, I might even have been able to read the other two 1956 87th Precinct books! ;D