Well, it’s been one hell of a week round these parts. I got a new job – I’ll be retraining as teacher in September, thanks for asking – and Mrs WAYRF and I have also been busy on the house, trying to make it look respectable before it goes on the market. Fair to say that downtime has been minimal, as was my ability to focus on a book. So when I had to spend a couple of days away from home and needed some suitable reading material to take with me I didn’t have to think twice. I threw the next 87th Precinct mystery into my suitcase, Ed McBain being possibly the most ridiculously readable author that I know.
Killer’s Wedge takes place over one afternoon in McBain’s always unnamed city, a tight timescale that’s reminiscent of the previous book in the series Lady Killer (which takes place over a single day). The book sees several detectives from the eight-seven taken hostage by Virginia Dodge, a desperate woman who holds Steve Carella responsible for the death of her convict husband and wants to make him pay the price. As if he didn’t already have enough on his mind; at the start of the book Carella and his wife Teddy learn that they will soon become parents, and alongside this news Carella also has a locked room suicide to investigate, one that may be a lot more complex than it first appears.
Like many of the other 87th precinct novels from this time, Killer’s Wedge is like an insect preserved in amber, a little time capsule full of the attitudes, fears and concerns of its time. The Second World War still sits in the background – new migrants to the city set traps ‘for the mice and rats which paraded through the apartment like the Wehrmacht through Poland‘, whilst several detectives think back to their service in the army. It’s interesting that much of the writing concerns what is going on in the heads of the detectives trapped in the station house – each of them trying to think of a way of disarming Virginia Dodge and rescuing the situation. In that sense the action is quite static, being largely centred on one location, but McBain tightens the tension to expert effect, so that the resolution always seems to be agonisingly just out of reach.
The author’s economy is also faultless. Whilst his colleagues are waiting for him to return, Carella is involved in investigating what looks like a suicide – the door to the room in which was the body was found was locked from the inside, so what else could it possibly have been? McBain unravels this little problem in as pleasing a way as you’ll find anywhere and also uses it to have a little fun with the genre. ‘What do we do now? Send a wire off to John Dickson Carr?‘ thinks Carella dolefully at one point, Carr being one of the acknowledged masters of the genre. The solution when it comes is blindingly obvious – but only after it has been explained to you.
Killer’s Wedge is again probably a more minor work in the whole 87th Precinct canon, but no less enjoyable for that. As well as an engaging thriller, it also fleshes out many of the series’ main characters, giving them a pleasing solidity and reminding the reader that these are not genius detecting machines nor bored rich dilettantes but rather ordinary men doing a difficult and at most times unpleasant job. The 87th Precinct series is one of the great soap operas of the crime fiction world, and much more nuanced and affecting than that description might at first suggest.
Next up is Til Death (1959), where Carella stalks a killer at his sister’s wedding. Man, can’t that man ever take a day off?