THREE BLIND MICE
By Ed McBain
Arcade. 293 pp. $18.95
All right, you vow, when learning that a new Ed McBain novel is out: Just one more, and then you'll stop. That's a solemn promise; no more. Or perhaps you'll stop for a few months, which coincidentally seems to be the usual interval between new McBain books.
They can't be good for you, these McBains. And the habit is wholly inexplicable for people like myself, who do not care very much for crime fiction. But books like his newest, "Three Blind Mice" (ninth in the series devoted to lawyer Matthew Hope) have a way of getting to you. And as I read the latest, I kept wondering what has made the McBain machine run so well for the past four decades.
McBain (who's written books like "The Blackboard Jungle" under his legal name, Evan Hunter) is best known for police procedural novels set in the fictional 87th Precinct of a city much like New York. They are gritty, violent and detailed -- and mimic reality in being full of dead ends and false scents. McBain's Matthew Hope novels, located in a fictional Florida city on the gulf, have neater plots and fairy-tale titles ("Goldilocks" was the first). In all of them, though, one recognizes the feints and steps of a writing professional. And as you read, you also think that someone really ought to study the phenomenon of literary prolificacy (McBain's police procedurals now number 42). The French had Balzac and Simenon; the Americans have, among others, Joyce Carol Oates and Ed McBain.
And the McBain machine seems almost to run of itself.
Protagonist Hope is, to be sure, a cardboard figure (divorced, late thirties, a 14-year-old daughter, gorgeous women friends, a pal on the homicide squad). But McBain's supporting cast is, as always, quirky, his plots race along ("The room smelled of blood," this one announces on the first page), and what there is of a mystery remains pretty much intact until the end.
The "three blind mice" of this title are three dead Vietnamese, who have been murdered and mutilated in particularly vicious fashion -- carved up with a carving knife, in the spirit of the nursery rhyme. What makes these killings especially interesting is that the victims have just been acquitted of raping the wife of a prominent citizen. The accused, Stephen Leeds, is the husband of the rape victim, and Matthew Hope quickly discovers that the case against his client is alarmingly strong.
In setting out to gather evidence in Leeds's behalf, Hope is occasionally joined by investigator Warren Chambers, "the only black man in Calusa with a high-top fade," his annoyed law partner, his ex-wife. There are hints of romance with an intense assistant DA and a Vietnamese translator. And in the supporting cast are the defendant's sultry wife, Jessica Leeds; her rather sinister brother; a slick tennis pro; and the crusty owner of a marina. Whenever the story flags, McBain almost unfailingly provides the sort of observation that he has made his signature:
"Policemen standing in the rain look the same all over the world. Especially when they're standing there looking down at a corpse. You won't see an umbrella anywhere in evidence. The uniformed cops may be wearing rainslickers, and the plainclothesmen may be wearing trenchcoats, but blues or suits, it doesn't matter, you'll never see an umbrella."
McBain is also very good at dialogue, even if some of it seems to belong to another, earlier decade; and he has a consistently lascivious eye: Almost no woman passes within his characters' ken without being observed with careful, sometimes abstract, sympathy. He also has an open, almost naive writing style, often filled with those tiny paragraphs that drive some readers mad:
"He sees the man from the corner of his eye."
That sort of thing.
The McBain machine, in "Three Blind Mice."
See how it runs. The reviewer is an editor in the Outlook section of The Washington Post.