Monday, 18 April 2011

87th Precinct

An early 87th Precinct story. This one promises rather more noir than it actually delivers. Its opening pages are the hook that tries its darndest to stop you putting the book back onto the spindle and choosing some other more tempting paperback. And even though it's many decades since this one saw anything other than thrift sale piles or charity shop boxes, I can appreciate why McBain lays it on so thick at the start. The city sounded like such a dark and shadow infested place on those pages... and cold, man it's cold.
'The citizens grinned into the wind, but the wind was not in a smiling mood.'
After that it gets down to business, the shadows are swept aside and the cold only nips at the narrative infrequently as McBain gets down to populating his police procedural with interesting characters. That is the real strength of these books - just well thought out and realised characters, which doesn't stint with even the minor cast.
I've heard all the comparisons to Dragnet but I'd be pulling the wool over your eyes if I agreed with them as I've barely seen more than an episode of that old series. So I'll stick with what I do know, throw my cards down on the table and say it most put me in mind of 'On Dangerous Ground' a classic noir film from the 50s starring Robert Ryan, which in turn was an adaptation of an old noir pulp by Gerald Butler. The early scenes set in the city do sing 87th Precinct at me. And I could draw a little parallel with Carella's romance with his deaf-mute wife Teddy to Robert Ryan's character falling for Ida Lupino's blind girl. I think it's true that screen writers and novelists were feeding on each other voraciously in the 40s and 50s, several of the 87th Precinct novels made it to the big screen itself, as well as a short half-life tv series which is largely forgotten.
This one is a strong entry in the series. It's strongest in the heat of the character dialogue, which is very naturalist. If you saw them acted out you would assume the actors were improvising or in some reality show sequence. It's weakest when McBain starts constructing his torturous ironic word-plays.
There's also a historic element for modern readers to enjoy, because even though though the stories take place in an imaginary city it can't hide being a city made up of amalgams of New York in the 50s. It's probably a more faithful representative of police procedures than a lot of today's detective fiction can claim, and McBain isn't shy of relating the technical minutiae of 50s forensics.
I'd recommend this series to anybody who liked the first 20 minutes of 'On Dangerous Ground' and fans of Dragnet or Hill Street Blues, though it's a bit tricky trying to dig these things up cheaply over half a century since they first gave us a twirl on those paperback spindles.

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