Lady Killer sees Ed McBain playing with some of his genre’s conventions, resulting in a crime novel that in some respects is as mannered as an Agatha Christie country-house murder. But there’s more humour and humanity in a McBain, and Lady Killer remains as readable as it was when first published nearly 50 years ago. I yomped through it in a weekend without breaking into a sweat. Hell, it was only the thought of a hot bath, a cold beer and a McBain that got me through a long day-job Saturday.
The action in Lady Killer takes place on a single day, 24 July. This also happens to be my mother’s birthday, who is at least partially responsible for getting me hooked on McBain in the first place. When Lady Killer was first published she would have been 13, and probably not far off starting on the series herself – for which she can blame my granddad Tom. Crime fiction has a long and glorious pedigree in my family. I never stood a chance.
In Lady Killer, a young boy delivers a note to the 87th Precinct, one that contains a dire warning. ‘I WILL KILL THE LADY TONIGHT AT 8. WHAT CAN YOU DO ABOUT IT?’ I’d dismiss it as the work of a crank, but that wouldn’t make for much of a story; instead, the boys of the eight-seven initially spend a lot of time following up this improbable threat, something which nagged at me to begin with. Hard to believe that the detective squad wouldn’t have anything better to do – the fact that so many of them were able to concentrate on this case, even for a single day, didn’t ring true. Fortunately, there’s some good forensic evidence just around the corner that proves them right, and the book then settles down into a race against the clock to find the would-be killer.
Speaking of forensics, one of my favourite scenes in the book involves a police sketch artist, a profession that also dates the book to an entirely different era. ‘He did not look at all like an artist. He did not wear a smock or a floppy bow tie, and his fingers were not stained with paint. He wore rimless eyeglasses, and he looked like a bored salesman for an exterminating service.’ Brought in to create a likeness of the man they think may be the author of the note, the sketch he creates proves to be crucial and also allows McBain to indulge his fondness for original documents and images placed in the text.
McBain keeps the action tight, with all of his detectives constantly aware of the ticking clock and the steady march towards their evening deadline. I’m not giving anything away when I say that the investigation goes down to the wire, although if you want to find out the identity of ‘the Lady’ and the killer you’ll have to read the book for yourself. Next up is the final book is McBain’s ‘killer’ quartet Killer’s Wedge, when a woman with a bomb and a seeming grudge against Steve Carella takes his fellow detectives hostage in the station-house.