Shotgun by Ed McBain #BookReview

Halloween put the hex on the men from the 87th Precinct. It was a bad time for solving a neat stabbing and a messy double murder.

Steve Carella remembered how Detective Kling had rushed outside the apartment to throw up.

One thing about a twelve-gauge shotgun at close range. It makes it tough for a cop to pick up the pieces.

In more ways than one…

Title: Shotgun | Author: Ed McBain | Series: 87th Precinct #23 | Publisher: Pan | Pages: 158 | ISBN: 9780446609739 | Publication date: 1969 | Source: Self purchased

There’s something about the pleasure of cracking open a book that you know you’re going to enjoy. I spent most of 2018 (a year in which I’d pledged to only read books by female authors), suffering from withdrawal symptoms for the work of my favourite crime writer, Ed McBain. That’s not to say that I wasn’t served up with some marvellous crime fiction in my year of abstinence. All the reviews I’ve posted so far on CriminOlly are for female authored books and many of them have been great, but there’s something about McBain’s work that I just love and going a year without reading one of his books was hard. Needless to say then, the first thing I did on New Year’s Day 2019 was crack open ‘Shotgun’ by Mr McBain and re-immerse myself in the grimy but enjoyable world of the 87th Precinct. By lunchtime I had finished it.

For the uninitiated, Ed McBain was a pseudonym of author Evan Hunter, and the 87th Precinct series was arguably his greatest work. It comprises over 50 books, published between 1956 and 2005, all set in a fictional city and focussed on a largely consistent team of detectives. If you’re interested in learning more about McBain and his work I strongly recommend ‘Hark! The 87th Precinct podcast’ which you can find here.

I’ve read many of the books over the last 30 or so years, and in 2013 started reading them through in order (an activity which obviously had to be put on hold in 2018). ‘Shotgun’ is the 23rd and you can expect to see reviews of the subsequent entries appear here as I work my way through them.

The plot of this one is relatively simple, and it doesn’t draw on as many of the members of the precinct as some of the other books do. It opens with detectives Carella and Kling at the scene of an apparent murder/suicide and the story develops from their as they investigate the deaths and the lives of two victims. There’s also a sub-plot about another murder being investigated by detective Meyer, and another about Kling’s relationship with his fiancee Cindy Forrest. The denouement isn’t the greatest in the series (in fact I figured it out before the cops did, which is unusual for me) but the book still comes to a satisfying conclusion.  

As ever with McBain, the details of the police work in ‘Shotgun’ are fascinating and convincing. The grisly details of the murders in the opening chapter of ‘Shotgun’ are brutally effective, and there’s an extended and disturbing passage that lists the horrific crimes committed in the precinct on Halloween. Against this violence the cops plough a workmanlike furrough as they interview potential witnesses and chase down clues. This is the police procedural at its finest, and whilst the work may be boring the book never is.

McBain’s other great strength was his ability to mix effective commentary on the appalling impacts of crime on individuals and communities, with affectionate and often amusing insights into the human condition. The 87th Precinct books are populated with incidental characters who leap off the page in just a few words, almost as if each is the subject of their own short story. The standout in this one was Joe Witters, the embittered boss of one of the victims who labels all young women “nymphomaniacs”. In scenes like these McBain manages to entertain, as well as, in this case, commenting on the reaction of men to the women’s lib movement in the 1960s. His light touch means that whilst he never glamorises crime or soft pedals on its impacts, those elements never overwhelm the books.

Aside from these character studies, ‘Shotgun’ also includes an amusing breakdown of the Oedipal references in the movie ‘Blow Up’, an unexpected (and brilliant) reappearance of a character from a previous book and a brief but effective essay on the importance of gun control. The fact that the mystery element isn’t up to McBain’s best work loses it a few points, but this is still a really enjoyable read. Even when he’s only average by his own standards, McBain is head and shoulders above much of the competition.


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