‘Winter came in like an anarchist with a bomb. Wild-eyed, shrieking, puffing hard, it caught the city in cold, froze the marrow and froze the heart.‘
When a drug user is found dead in a freezing basement a week before Christmas, detectives Carella and Kling soon find themselves looking for a murderer amongst the precinct’s dealers, pushers and addicts. As the investigation continues, it appears that the killer may come from somewhere very close – too close – to home.
From its opening lines (which have muscled their way into my Top 10) to the Christmas Day finale, I enjoyed The Pusher a lot. Reading the series in order, this third book felt like the first one where McBain was really confident in his material, and enjoying himself. Having his cast and setting clear in his mind from the previous two books, McBain is now free to concentrate on the characterisation, the dialogue and the plot, and have more fun with each of these elements.
Patrolman Bert Kling was the hero of the previous book, The Mugger, and his success there saw him promoted to the detective squad. This provides McBain (and the reader) with a lot of entertainment, as we watch him tackle a murder for the first time, and get short shift from the homicide squad and the Coroner. It also provides McBain with a neat way of explaining their jargon to the rest of us, and a lesson in how to tell the difference between a suicide and something more deliberate.
The Pusher is also fascinating as a period piece – not surprising given it was written close to 60 years ago. There’s a lot here about the drugs sub-culture of the late 1950s, and hard drugs at that. Heroin is seemingly everywhere, and this gives the novel a bleakness that distinguishes it from its predecessors. The addict whose body is found at the start of the book comes from an immigrant background, the family having moved to the US from Puerto Rico. There’s a poignant chapter at the beginning of the book, where the dead man’s mother – whilst being questioned by Carella about her son – looks back at the family’s recent past, and what they have left behind. The depth of social commentary included here is interesting, and unusual for a police procedural of the time. It’s more in keeping with the ‘serious’ books McBain wrote under his real name, Evan Hunter – but is also something that emerges time and again in many later books in the 87th Precinct series.
Equally of its time, and more light-hearted, is McBain’s lesson to the reader in what must have been (back in 1956) state-of-the-art forensics techniques. Much of one chapter describes the analysis of a murder scene, and the use of fingerprint, fluid and blood analysis. I’m sure much of it is now out-of-date, but I found this look into the past fascinating. It also sums up McBain’s approach in the whole series, which is not about a single detective, but rather a group of them, and the patrolmen, forensic scientists and pathologists who work alongside them. In his afterword (another, very good reason to buy the ebook versions of the novels), he sums this approach up succinctly as being about a ‘conglomerate hero in a mythical city.‘
Having read the first three books in the series, that means I’ve got to the end of McBain’s 87th Precinct output for 1956. Once I’ve got over the shock of him writing three books in a single year, I’ll move on to The Con Man (1957).