Patrolman Bert Kling is 24 and newly back from serving in Korea where he’d seen terrorized women, and starving women, and begging women. But, writes Ed McBain in The Mugger, “he never once connected those women with the pleasure he felt in watching the girls in America.”
And Kling likes watching American girls.
He watched the strong legs, and the firm breasts, and the well-rounded buttocks, and he felt good. Maybe he was crazy, but there was something exhilarating about strong white teeth and sun-tanned faces and sun-bleached hair. Somehow, they made him feel strong, too, and maybe he was crazy, and never once did he make any connection with what he had seen in Korea.
The Mugger, published in 1956, was the second of the 87th Precinct novels written by McBain, whose legal name was Evan Hunter (the name he used for his more literary novels) and whose original name was Salvatore Albert Lombino.
In all, McBain wrote 53 full novels as well as several novellas and a bunch of short stories that centered on the police work of the detectives in the 87th Precinct in a place he called simply the city. Although names and geography are changed, McBain’s city is New York.
The edition of The Mugger that I read has a quote on its cover from another inspired crime novelist Elmore Leonard. Although Leonard tended to tell his stories from the perspective of those living on the edge or even over the edge of legality, good guys but not too straight-laced, he paid honor to the quality of McBain’s story-telling from the police side of things:
“Ed McBain has great approach, great attitudes, terrific style, strong plots, excellent dialogue, sense of place, and sense of reality.”
High praise, from a master. All of those qualities, of course, are also found in Leonard’s novels. And, on a more detailed level, the two writers share something else — an enjoyment of knowing the inner lives of their characters and telling the stories of those inner lives, especially for recurring characters.
Consider Detective 2nd/Grade Meyer Meyer, a mainstay of the 87th Precinct series. In this second installment, McBain is just now getting around to explaining how this cop came to be called what he’s called:
He was, in fact, the most patient cop in the 87th Precinct, if not the entire city. Meyer had a father who considered himself a very humorous man. His father’s name was Max. When Meyer was born, Max named him Meyer. This was considered convulsively comic, a kid named Meyer Meyer. You had to be very patient if you were born a Jew to begin with. You have to be supernaturally patient if your hilarious old man tags you with a handle like Meyer Meyer. He was patient. But a lifelong devotion to patience often provides a strain and, as the saying goes, something’s got to give. Meyer Meyer was as bald as a cue ball, even though he was only thirty-seven years old.
No way to know when and how McBain came up with the idea of having a Meyer Meyer in his series of police procedural books. Did he come up with the name and then sketch out the character? Or was he imagining this character and had a brainstorm about an apt name?
Either way, the name fits the smallish, hen-pecked, doting father who, in addition to patience, approaches life with a world-weariness as if he were many decades older. Although the same age as most of the other detectives in the squad, Meyer always seems more mature, wiser even. Meyer Meyer.
Meyer, by the way, is so patient that, in The Mugger, he spends days telling the other guys in the squad about a series of cat kidnappings that have been taking place in a distant precinct, patiently, patiently giving updates day after day, until finally it’s the right moment, and he quietly pops the punchline.
“Loud, heavy voice”
Another member of the squad is a stark contrast to Meyer:
Detective 3rd/Grade Roger Havilland looked down at the woman from his six-foot-four height advantage. Havilland owned the body of a wrestler and the face of a Botticelli cherub. He spoke in a loud, heavy voice, not because Miss Ellio was hard of hearing, but simply because Havilland liked to shout.
This comes on the second page of The Mugger, so readers aren’t surprised later on when it turns out that Havilland isn’t against accepting a bribe on occasion and isn’t averse to beating a confession out of a subject.
McBain offers a deft plot in The Mugger having to do with a series of muggings and the death of a 17-year-old girl. It’s well worth reading.
But, to end, I want to point out another major character in the 87th Precinct novels, probably the most important character — the city. Here, for instance, is a description of one part of the city:
The houses on Culver had never been really fancy. Like poor and distant relatives of the buildings lining the river, they had basked in the light of reflected glory many years ago. But the soot and the grime of the city had covered their bumpkin faces, had turned them into city people, and they stood now with hunched shoulders and dowdy clothes, wearing mournful faces.
There were a lot of churches on Culver Avenue. There were also a lot of bars. Both were frequented regularly by the Irish people who still clung to their neighborhood tenaciously — in spite of the Puerto Rican influx, in spite of the Housing Authority, which was condemning and knocking down dwellings with remarkable rapidity, leaving behind rubble-strewn open fields in which grew the city’s only crop: rubbish.
What a line — “the city’s only crop: rubbish.” What a writer.
Patrick T. Reardon