Ed McBain Essay - Critical Essays


Ed McBain was a serious, versatile, prolific, and successful writer. His 87th Precinct police procedurals were usually written in about a month, yet they were and are appreciated by large audiences, who are more familiar with Ed McBain than with Evan Hunter. Indeed, McBain’s works effectively replaced those of Erle Stanley Gardner and Georges Simenon, among others, as a standard on the bookstores’ mystery and detective fiction shelves.

McBain’s appeal is explicable in several ways. Clearly, he intended to entertain with swiftly moving, dramatic stories. In addition, he clearly entertained himself in the sense that he was free to explore any subject matter so long as it related to his characters’ criminal investigations. This freedom allowed him considerable range. Indeed, his work offers glimpses of a Dickensian array of characters: junkies, medical examiners, prostitutes, actors, patrolmen, psychologists, lawyers, businessmen, burglars, arsonists, psychopaths, gang members, homemakers, social workers, clergy, district attorneys, female police officers, and politicians. The list, if not inexhaustible, is extensive.

Considerable appeal also stems from McBain’s clinical concentration on the crime. A corpse is discovered—hanged, beaten, shot, dismembered, poisoned, drowned, or overdosed—and everything subsequently concentrates on how it came to be where and what it was. Kept distinct are whatever effects the corpse and the crime may have on shaping those who are involved with it or are enmeshed in the crime. The detailing of violence is employed not to titillate or to provoke but to underscore the fact that violence, senseless and otherwise, is part of a police officer’s daily reality. Nauseating situations are normal.

The 87th Precinct Series

The 87th Precinct’s professional survival—and sanity—thus depends on the extent to which its individuals understand, have mastered, and have a feel for certain unvarying procedures “as disciplined as the pattern of a bull fight.” McBain holds his readers because his knowledge of those procedures (learned from the New York and Florida police) has a professional imprimatur. It is the application of procedures, authoritatively unfolded by McBain, that is central to every novel.

Descriptive background in the 87th Precinct stories is minimal. New York City is called simply Isola; it is divided into five sections, as dissimilar as foreign countries. There are the River Harb and the River Dix (Styx), which surround the city; Calm’s Point (ironically, a dangerous section); West Riverhead; Lower Isola; the Gold Coast; and Cloak City (a garment center, in later books Coke City).

Principal characters in the 87th Precinct stories are also sketchily described. Detective Steve Carella is merely a tall, athletic man in his late thirties or early forties with somewhat slanted, Asian eyes. However, Carella, as much as anyone, is the central figure. So it is with the other precinct detectives. McBain’s rough characterization reflects his view of the police and the nature of their work. Like an army, Isola’s police force is a vast, hierarchical organization, and detectives are only organization men. He has compared them to account executives, a notoriously cutthroat profession, yet detectives have a singular difference: They view the myriad forms of death daily. In McBain’s corpus, police officers witness the slow, individual decay of the slums’ inhabitants. Each day, they witness the death in the addicts’ search for heroin; the death by confinement for burglars, thieves, pimps, hustlers, muggers, and killers; the death of the whore’s honor and integrity under repeated sexual...

(The entire section is 1515 words.)