In Killer’s Choice, Ed McBain’s ambition to write a series about ‘a conglomerate hero in a mythical city’ is again brought to life by the ebb and flow of the squad room. A detective is killed in the line of duty (a move also seen in the first book, Cop Hater), whilst new recruit Cotton Hawes joins the bulls of the eight-seven from the plusher surroundings of the 30th Precinct. The difference becomes apparent when Carella asks Hawes how many homicides they used to get. ‘Six,’ comes the reply. ‘What, a week?’ ‘Six in four years.’
I remember Hawes from reading the 87th Precinct series in my teens, mostly for the streak over his left temple ‘where he had once been knifed and where the hair had curiously grown in white after the wound healed.’ What I hadn’t been aware of was where he’d come from, and it’s these ‘origin stories’ that make revisiting the books so enjoyable. I was also surprised how unsympathetic Hawes is at the beginning of Killer’s Choice. He is impatient, rude, and wholly uninterested in a ballistics lesson from the lab on the gun used in a liquor store murder:
‘It doesn’t hurt to know these things,’ Carella said.
‘Why? Do you plan on becoming a lab cop?’
‘Nope. But if you can appreciate another man’s job, you won’t ask the impossible of him.’
‘That’s a generous attitude,’ Hawes said. ‘I like to do things fast.’
Given Hawes’ lack of experience, this haste has near fatal consequences for Carella. Having traced a suspect to his address Carella is all ready to storm the apartment, but is stunned when Hawes knocks politely and announces their arrival. Not surprisingly bullets are the next thing to come though the door, swiftly followed by the suspect himself. Hawes pushes his colleague to the ground (leaving Carella otherwise uninjured), and grapples with the murderer – who leaves Hawes ‘with his face open at every seam‘ before making his escape. ‘You stupid son of a bitch!’ Carella said. ‘Are you all right?’
One of my favourite sections in Killer’s Choice follows on from this mistake. It begins:
‘When a new man joins a firm, the other employees are apt to talk about him… If he contributes something colourful to the working day, the employees very often will take their talk home to their wives. They will dissect the newcomer at the dinner table.’
This is certainly true for Cotton Hawes, and the chapter shows several officers at home with their families and wives, discussing the day’s events. It’s another example of what McBain does so effectively in the series, that of highlighting his detectives’ lives away from the squad room. There’s real humour and affection in these scene, and also a subtle indication of what these families must give up by having a father or a husband work in such a dangerous profession.
Much of this humour stems from Jewish detective Meyer Meyer, a man with almost supernatural levels of patience – these borne out of his father’s hysterical desire to give his son identical first and second names. Meyer featured in earlier books in the series, but there’s more of his personality in this one. As well as a good policeman, he’s warm and funny, and you can tell McBain enjoys writing about him. ‘I’m a cop,’ he says at one point, ‘I got to keep up my strength. Who knows, some day I’ll be out on a squeal with Mr. Cotton, and we’ll capture a criminal wanted in twenty states, and Mr. Cotton will hand him his gun and say, ’Hold this for me a minute, will you?’ For this, you need strength.’
A later passage made me snort in bed as I was reading it; my wife looked at me sideways, just to check I wasn’t having a seizure. Meyer has a visit from a local wino who has information about the liquor store murder. After he has left, Meyer has a brief conversation with Miscolo, the precinct’s deadpan clerical officer:
‘How come your father visited you here?’ he asked.
Meyer would not get angry. ‘Search me,’ he said. ‘I tell him to stay away, but he keeps coming. I guess he loves me. I’m hairy, but he loves me.’
For those that need reminding, Detective 2nd/Grade Meyer Meyer is as bald as a coot, another reason for his unwavering grace under fire.
McBain hasn’t been sufficiently recognised for his humour, but it’s one of the main reasons I keep returning to him. Crime (in all its gory detail) is at the centre of his 87th Precinct series, but comedy and heart are equally integral to the books; not least in the way that McBain’s detectives use them to cope with the grim reality of their working lives. As any of us surely would, in the same situation.
Next I’ll be reading the second book in McBain’s ‘killer’ quartet, Killer’s Payoff (1958) – where Carella and the team investigate the murder of a blackmailer, and have no shortage of potential suspects. It’s the first book in the series that I’m re-reading, so I’m intrigued to see how it holds up, and how much I remember.