‘Everybody has a right to earn a living.‘
McBain was certainly doing that at the beginning of his epic 87th Precinct series, one that documents almost 50 years of American history. I’m still somewhat staggered to recall that he wrote and published the first three novels in the space of a year – although by this point McBain was already a seasoned pulp writer, well used to meeting tight deadlines. It’s only with the fourth book in the series, The Con Man, that we move into 1957. The previous book – The Pusher – ended on Christmas Day; this one begins in rainy April, the damp weather making Detective Steve Carella’s wounds ache.
For me, the 87th Precinct series is a monument – a creation that documents close to 50 years of modern American history. As with any monument, you have to start somewhere; whilst I enjoyed Cop Hater and The Mugger, there’s also the impression that McBain is more concerned with familiarising himself with the territory, and becoming comfortable with his central conceit of ‘conglomerate hero in a mythical city.’ These books were followed by The Pusher, which is much more assured – from its memorable opening line (‘Winter came in like an anarchist with a bomb‘) through to the tense finale.
I’m pleased to report that this trend continues with The Con Man, a book that shows more of the author’s sly humour. McBain as narrator talks directly to the reader, commenting on the world that he has created and contrasting two distinct types of con man: a pair of operators who ingeniously relieve the good people of the eight-seven of their hard-earned cash; and a handsome, avaricious batchelor who has murder on his mind.
The Con Man is more a novel set in our own world. There are more contemporary references than I noticed in the previous books – characters talk about popular music (Frank Sinatra’s album In the Wee Small Hours, first released in 1955, is name-checked), and there’s reference to officers and detectives having served in World War Two. ‘If you cleaned up the whole Pacific Theatre,’ says Detective Kling at one point, to a couple of cynical Missing Persons Bureau officers, ‘you should be able to help me.‘
Race is also a factor in this book. The Con Man sees the first appearance of recurring black detective Arthur Brown, a man continually at the edge of a patience worn thin by tiresome jokes on his name and colour. In one striking scene, Brown visits a sleazy hotel in pursuit of a suspect. Before the receptionist knows Brown is a policeman, he makes the hotel’s policy clear:
‘I’ll give it to you straight,’ the desk clerk said. ‘We don’t take niggers.’
Brown didn’t even blink.
This exchange, and the dialogue that follows, shines a light on the everyday racism that would have been part of life in 1950s America (and, indeed, the UK), even in a cosmopolitan city modelled on New York. As with the plight of migrants in The Pusher, this scene demonstrates McBain’s interest in the wider world around the police investigation; and these are elements which he will continue to explore through the rest of the series.
McBain’s interest in the nuts and bolts of detective work (and its routine: ‘when you’ve looked at missing-person report after missing-person report, you begin to wish you were missing yourself’) continues in The Con Man, which features facsimile documents amongst its pages. An arrest record includes a grainy photograph that looks suspiciously like a youthful Ed McBain; and I’ll now be on the look-out for any more Hitchcock-esque appearances in future books. Under his real name of Evan Hunter, McBain went on to write the script for Hitchcock’s The Birds, a fact which he also riffs on in later books.
Next up, Carella investigates a murder in a liquor store (much more evocative than the British equivalent, an off-licence…) in the first book in McBain’s ‘killer’ trilogy Killer’s Choice, also from 1957.