The McBainiad, Book 13: ‘See Them Die’ (1960)

mcbain-see-them-die-signetOne of the joys of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series is that you know what you’re going to get: there’s a crime, the detectives solve it, order is restored. And yet… Sometimes McBain surprises you, and such is the case with See Them Die, a novel that concerns itself much more with the community served by the boys of the eight-seven, rather than the detectives’ personal and private lives. I’m not sure it’s the strongest entry into the series so far; and yet, there’s much to admire and enjoy about it, and it may be one book that stays in my mind for longer than I might expect.

In See Them Die, an anonymous phone call to the precinct gives the detectives the location of notorious Puerto Rican bad boy Pepe Miranda. Having already escaped the police once, they are determined not to make the same mistake twice – and so a large force of uniformed and plain-clothes officers are dispatched to ensure he is captured. But that is only part of McBain’s narrative; alongside this, he also paints a vivid picture of the community in which Miranda is hiding out. The whole narrative takes place across one single Sunday morning; and as the sun rises, tensions do the same.

Teenage street gangs give the book a contemporary feel. The boys whose dialogue and contemptuous arguments McBain describes sound older than they probably are – as a teacher, I know well that fierce desire amongst teens to grow up more quickly than biology (and society) allows. But as this is America, the presence of guns gives the story another, wholly darker dimension; and whilst McBain gives the readers hints about what is to follow, he still manages to keep them guessing until the book’s final pages. McBain constantly riffs off his title, to powerful effect. And the idea that violence is somehow a spectator sport implicates not only the characters in his book, but also the reader themselves. That’s not something you expect of your standard crime novel.

I vaguely remember trying to read See Them Die as a teenager, and giving up early on in the book. I don’t remember what happened, but I think I can guess at why. See Them Die is not your typical McBain policier – and that’s by no means a fault. Rather, it feels like a book I’ve grown into, one I appreciate much more now that I’m older.

Next up: bad news for one detective on the squad as a bookshop shooting turns very personal in Lady, Lady I Did It!

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