The McBainiad, Book 10: ‘King’s Ransom’ (1959)

kings ransomConfession time: King’s Ransom is the first of the 87th Precinct books that (since I started re-reading them) I put to one side without finishing. This may be because the book goes against the author’s usual technique, which was to start with a corpse. King’s Ransom doesn’t have McBain’s snappiest opening; several scenes at the beginning don’t feature the boys of the Eight-Seven at all, but rather set the scene and feature the victims of the kidnapping that forms the centre of the book. This is vital context building for what happens later, but not McBain’s best work. So I set King’s Ransom aside in order to get to grips with James Shapiro’s remarkable 1606: The Year of Lear, a study of 12 months in the life of Shakespeare. From the ridiculous to the sublime.

Big mistake. After a week of feeling guilty I picked the McBain up again – and instantly launched into one of those scenes that make the 87th Precinct series such a pleasure to read, the ones that made me fall in love with McBain in the first place. Few writers (with the possible exception of Elmore Leonard) write dialogue that’s as snappy, sharp and readable, and his best scenes often involve two of McBain’s main preoccupations: policemen and the weather. When I came back to King’s Ransom it was to three detectives freezing their arses – sorry, asses – off on a cold October night, looking for evidence of the car which was used in the attempted abduction of a tycoon’s son.

Despite McBain’s assertion that ‘men engrossed in their work can be dull company to each other even when the weather is mild’, this sequence was one of the highlights of the book for me. It’s also a pleasing illustration of how McBain cross-pollinates his books, hinting at investigations from earlier novels and showing the reader how characters have developed since then. We’re also at a point in the series where the Second World War burns very brightly in the minds of these detectives (McBain also saw service with the Navy), reminding the reader of the context in which these early books were written. ‘Frozen mud,’ Detective Andy Parker grumbles in the October chill. ‘Like Italy during the war. More than fifteen years go by, and I’m still up to my ass in frozen mud.’ 

After this point the story zipped along to its conclusion, sparky enough for the rest of the book to pass in an entertaining blur of pages. King’s Ransom is not the strongest entry in the series, but even off his top game Ed McBain is as engaging a writer as you’ll read anywhere. One more ticked off the list; next up is Give the Boys a Great Big Hand, a crime novel that takes a very, very literal interpretation of its title.


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