When I studied classical Greek and Roman literature at university, one aspect we considered was the deep relationship these stories had with the society which created them. Greek tragedy had its origins in religious ritual (the word comes from tragoidia, ‘goat song’, after the animals sacrificed during the ceremony), a time when a city-state came together. Tragedies were a way of exploring dark realities; of telling a moral story and reminding the populace of their place within and responsibilities to that society.
Yes, yes, I hear you cry, all very autobiographical and self-indulgent. But what does this have to do with an American crime writer? Good question. The point about classical drama is that it couldn’t all be tragic. Powerful and moving as these stories were, sometimes you needed to lighten the mood. And that’s where the comedians came in, writers such as Aristophanes, Menander and Plautus who guaranteed a happy ending. This was often achieved at the play’s climax through the medium of a wedding, a symbol of a broken society coming back together and the sign of a new beginning.
A wedding is central to Til Death, the ninth book in McBain’s 87th Precinct series. Detective Steve Carella’s younger sister Angela is getting married, but it quickly becomes obvious that someone has a grudge against the groom. It’s up to Carella and the rest of the detective squad (most of them on their day off) to stop it from having a fatal outcome.
What struck me early on in the book was how removed it seemed to be from the societal concerns McBain had explored earlier in the series (and which are to come roaring back as the 87th Precinct series moves into the 1970s and 1980s). Whilst there are some references to the Korean and Second World Wars (the former is a key motivator for one of the characters), otherwise McBain doesn’t over-reference contemporary America. There’s nothing about recent migrants or the drugs problem or politics or any of the other issues that have featured thus far in the pages of the 87th Precinct saga.
It’s almost as if Til Death is an interval in the investigation of tragic crime in the urban jungle, and it has the feel of a comedy all over it. There are comedy musicians and annoying servants, a nervous bride and an anxious groom, a drunken father and a busty femme fatale. There’s even the Eight-Seven’s unluckiest officer, Detective Bob O’Brien, a man who has shot more men than the rest of the squad put together. Many of these characters are listed at the beginning of the book in exact imitation of a play’s dramatis personae – one sign of the different approach that McBain wanted to take with this book.
As well as this varied cast, Til Death’s setting feels less urban than others in the series. Much of the action takes place in Riverhead, McBain’s version of the Bronx. This particular borough still includes a lot of countryside, probably even more so 60 years ago when the book was written. The wedding reception takes place at Carella’s parents house, in an extensive garden filled with fruit trees and vines lovingly tended by his father Antonio. There’s also a small wood separating this house from the one next door – a shady, hidden space that plays an important role in the action.
Just like a classical Greek comedy, Til Death has a happy ending (but you’ll have to read the book to find out exactly what it is), and also a new beginning. I enjoyed it, but maybe not as much as some of the more classic examples of the series. McBain said he liked to start his books with a corpse, but that’s not what happens in Til Death. Nevertheless it’s still fun to see McBain playing around with the genre and showing his detectives on a day away from the workplace. Even if the work insists on following Steve Carella home.