(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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The term “police procedural” refers to that branch of detective fiction which includes Ed McBain’s acclaimed 87th Precinct mysteries. Police procedurals are precisely what their name implies--tough, detailed depictions of the methods used by the police to solve a crime--and Ed McBain has become perhaps the best-known practitioner of the style. In the 87th Precinct novels, McBain chronicles the activities of an imaginary police department, shifting his focus from character to character and developing over the last three decades the fictional equivalent of a theatrical repertory company. POISON is the most recent addition to the series, and its story centers on detectives Hal Willis and Steve Carella as they investigate a series of deaths that all lead back to the same woman: Marilyn Hollis, blonde, beautiful, and mysteriously wealthy. The integrity of the investigation is soon at risk when Willis falls in love with her.

The framework upon which McBain builds his story is the day-to-day routine of police work; the painstaking checking and rechecking of details, the interrogation of suspects, the instinctive hunches drawn from years of experience. There is an impressive accuracy to the book that makes POISON seem like a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the workings of a large metropolitan police force. To this portrait, McBain adds a crucial human dimension, building a sense of camaraderie among the men and women on the force as they swap jokes and share moments in each other’s lives. Among McBain’s best touches are several brief vignettes involving peripheral characters not directly involved in this book’s case, but whose presence in POISON adds to the novel’s status as part of a continuing, interrelated body of work.

McBain uses the case itself as a means of character exploration, delving into both Willis’ conflicting loyalties when he catches Marilyn in a series of lies and Marilyn’s own troubled past. The plot is tautly paced and sometimes brutally explicit, although McBain’s descriptions are always based in authenticity rather than shock value, and the balance between action and character development is well maintained throughout the book. POISON is a hard-hitting detective story told with authority and skill, a worthy addition to the ongoing saga of the 87th Precinct.