A Novel of the 87th Precinct

By Ed McBain

Harcourt. 259 pp. $25

One of the greatest American crime writers died two months ago -- after having with his usual professionalism readied for publication this, the last of his many novels. We know him mostly as Ed McBain, but he was born Salvatore Lombino in 1926 in East Harlem, the son of a mailman who played the drums in a band and the grandson of a tailor. While serving in the Navy in 1944-46, he read Hammett, Hemingway and Cain, and started writing short stories and sending them to magazines. All were rejected. After the war, he entered Hunter College on the GI Bill and took all the writing courses he could. He wanted to go to Paris and write, like Hemingway a generation before, but when his wife became pregnant he took a job teaching at a vocational school in the Bronx. The students, he found, didn't give a damn about literature. In 1954, after a stint as an editor/reader with the Scott Meredith literary agency, he immortalized their surliness in "The Blackboard Jungle."

He published "The Blackboard Jungle" as Evan Hunter and later made that his legal name, because an ethnic name like Lombino was considered a handicap then. After the novel did well, an editor at Pocket Books, hoping to duplicate the success of Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason series, urged him to attempt a series of paperback originals about the police. Thus was born the 87th Precinct series, credited to Ed McBain. The first, "Cop Hater," was published in 1956, and when McBain died of cancer on July 6, he had completed "Fiddlers," the 55th and, his publisher says, last novel in the series. He also published 50 or so more novels, both as McBain and Hunter, but the 87th Precinct books, set in Isola, his fictional New York City, are his finest work and the best police series ever written by an American, at least until Michael Connelly began his Harry Bosch novels in 1992.

You can argue that McBain spread his talent too thin, but he didn't think so, and the books themselves challenge that thesis. He was proudly prolific -- the man couldn't not write -- and with rare exceptions his books are a delight. He knew police work cold, he was never, never dull, and he had wonderful range. The novels are variously tragic, hilarious, cynical, lyrical, violent, tender, angry, absurdist and wise. His Everycop, Detective Steve Carella, is a decent, hardworking family man, a team player, never as colorful or angst-ridden as, say, Connelly's Bosch or John Sandford's Lucas Davenport, but closer to the reality of police work than any other fictional cop.

Carella's colleagues in the 87th Precinct include that bloated bigot Detective Oliver Wendell "Fat Ollie" Weeks, who is one of the great comic characters in popular fiction. In this novel, Fat Ollie is dating an attractive cop and is obsessed with his prospects: "He was actively planning, in the darkest recesses of his primeval mind, the seduction of . . . Patricia Gomez." In another scene, the sublimely irreligious Fat Ollie charges into a Catholic church and demands to see the "head priest."

McBain had been ill for some time. Probably he knew that "Fiddlers" would be his last novel and set out to say some goodbyes -- much as the serial killer in the novel is himself dying of cancer and wrapping up loose ends with a 9mm Glock. My pointing this out might have amused McBain, who was nothing if not tough-minded. The first murder is of a blind violinist -- a fiddler -- who plays in an Italian restaurant. That's one reason for the novel's title -- another is that the police commissioner accuses the 87th Precinct of "fiddling around" instead of catching the killer. Another is the killer's anger at people who "fiddled" with his life. In rapid succession, he kills four more people. When he isn't killing people, he dallies with an expensive call girl who likes to think she's a stand-up comic who only turns tricks to pay the rent.

As the killings continue, Carella and his colleagues follow up dozens of leads, which enables McBain to bring us up to date on various 87th Precinct detectives and to introduce a colorful sampling of Isola's citizenry. Carella's mother remarried in a recent novel, and we get a glimpse of her new life in Italy. Carella and his much-loved wife, Teddy, must cope with the discovery that one of their 13-year-old twins has smoked marijuana. Detective Bert Kling's interracial romance with a black doctor, in progress for several books now, is on the rocks, and he finds himself in bed with another black woman who is either a hooker or the world's sexiest librarian. We meet a young college professor who promises to give a student an A if he'll sleep with her; he does, she doesn't, and she pays with her life. We meet a Korean woman whose chain of nail salons is a front for cocaine sales, and a college student who lectures the detectives on just how bored she is with Wordsworth's poetry -- funny, I had that problem myself. We listen to a call girl explain how her clients invariably blame their wives or the hookers for their own inadequacies, and we glimpse a woman "with her graying red hair flying around her head like a halo of bats."

McBain finds time for an early-summer street scene in his beloved Isola: "Men in tank-top undershirts playing checkers or chess on upturned orange crates. Dozens of women in cotton housedresses knitting on front stoops like so many Mesdames Defarges. White ice cream trucks trolling the streets like predators. Tweeny girls flashing long legs in short skirts, precipitate breasts in recklessly low-cut tops. Macho young men strutting their testosterone. And the cotton was high." That final tip of the hat to the Gershwin brothers was typical -- McBain loved the theater, and Isola was the stage where for 50 years he gave us a great American drama. The man who was variously McBain, Hunter and Lombino is gone now, but drop in any used-book store or library and you'll probably find a dozen or more of his books. Try a few, when you're tired of being bored or befuddled by fiction. Some of my favorites are "Ice," "The Frumious Bandersnatch," "Poison," "The Last Dance" and "Long Time No See," but you will rarely go wrong if you just pick one at random. McBain was a master, and his tales of the city are timeless.