In a series as long as Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct, it’s inevitable that some of the books will vary in quality – and whilst Killer’s Payoff is certainly no dog, it’s not as strong as some of the other earlier entries. I whipped through it in a matter of hours, which in itself is no bad thing (as though keeping a reader engaged was somehow easy), but it does also indicate a more shallow mode of storytelling. Killer’s Payoff has the boys of the Eight-Seven investigating the shooting of a blackmailer, and trying to identify who was responsible. Was it one of his victims, or another criminal trying to muscle in on his territory?
New boy Cotton Hawes is once again centre stage, but the portrayal of him in this book is much more sympathetic than in Killer’s Choice. Hawes is less arrogant, and more willing to listen to his fellow detectives. He also has plenty of female attention and revels in it, these passages giving the book much of its charm and humour. More ominously, there’s a reference to what awaits Hawes in future books. Driving past Castleview prison, Hawes ‘looked at [it] now with only passing interest. It would one day, in the not too distant future, become an integral part of his life, but he did not know that now, and he would not know it until long after the Kramer case had been solved.‘ Hmmmm… I’ve no idea where this is headed, but I’m looking forward to finding out.
And this is one of the aspects of Killer’s Payoff that I really enjoyed, the way in which McBain very self-consciously places the book into the broader series. As well as the reference above, there are lots of others which relate to previous books: the detectives shot in the first book Cop Hater, Steve Carella being shot during The Pusher, the murder of a young woman whose body was washed up from the river in The Con Man. One of the suspects from the last book Killer’s Choice turns up again, this time helping Detective Kling with this new investigation. All of these references give the series a pleasing solidity, and are one of the joys of tackling the series sequentially, as an original reader would have done.
Under his real name – Evan Hunter – McBain worked alongside the director Alfred Hitchcock, producing scripts for The Birds and Marnie. And, like the master, McBain enjoys making appearances in his own work. In The Con Man a photograph of a youthful McBain was used on an arrest record. In Killer’s Payoff, he makes a more literary reappearance; one of the characters has a penchant for quoting the first lines of novels, and asks Hawes whether he recognises the following: ‘The building presented a not unpleasant architectural scheme, the banks of wide windows reflecting golden sunlight, the browned weathered brick facade, the ivy clinging to the brick and framing the windows.‘ Hawes cuts him off before he can give the full title, but there’s enough there to confirm these are the opening lines from Evan Hunter’s earlier novel The Blackboard Jungle, originally published in 1954 and which drew heavily on Hunter’s experiences of working as a teacher in the Bronx.
Whilst the writing is less crisp than other early books in the series, it is these more playful elements that make Killer’s Payoff worth reading. Referring both to the immediate past and an uncertain future, the book demonstrates McBain’s commitment to his long-running police saga. They also make me eager to read the next in the series, 1958’s Lady Killer in which Carella and the other detectives are set a deadline by an unseen murderer to stop a killing before it happens.