The 87th Precinct series by Ed McBain (a pseudonym of Evan Hunter) was a tremendous literary success with around 55 novels spanning from 1956 to the author’s death in 2005. Those in-the-know say that the shorter early installments are the best use of your time before the demands of the market made the novels more bloated and convoluted later in the series. Today, we examine the second paperback, “The Mugger,” from 1956.
In order to firmly establish that the 87th Precinct is a true ensemble group of heroes, the lead detective from the first novel, Steve Carrella, is largely absent from “The Mugger” while he is on his honeymoon. In his absence, the 87th Precinct of Isola (McBain’s fictionalized version of Manhattan) is being plagued by a mugger roughing-up innocent women and robbing their purses. The most promising clue is that the mugger always ends his strongarm robberies with a deep bow while declaring, “Clifford thanks you, madam!”
There is a secondary plot involving a 24 year-old rookie patrolman named Bert Kling who is home recovering from a gunshot wound. An acquaintance introduces Kling to a troubled 17-year-old girl who appears to be going down the wrong path. The hope is that a heart-to-heart with a policeman might help the girl. Bored with his convalescence, Kling agrees to speak to the young lady, who happens to be a slender little dish uninterested in sharing her problems with the young patrolman. After rebuffing Kling’s outreach, she finds herself violently murdered a few pages later creating another mystery to be solved.
Could the violent death of the girl somehow be related to the oddball mugger terrorizing the women of Isola? The detectives of the 87th endeavor to find out while Kling, the novel’s best character, punches above his weight conducting his own investigation - a violation of department policy for a patrolman.
We get to know a lot of other characters in the 87th, and McBain does a nice job of making the ensemble come alive. We meet the Jewish police detective - and comic relief - Meyer Meyer. We bear witness to the controversial tactics of racist psychopath cop, Roger Havilland. A sexy, voluptuous female cop named Eileen Burke is used as bait to smoke out the mugger. She’s another awesome character, and readers will want to know her better in later installments.
The answers to the paperback’s central mysteries were satisfying but not groundbreaking or terribly twisty. You’ll see one solution coming from a mile away, but that’s not the point of a police procedural. The appeal of the series is a realistic glance behind the curtain revealing how cops do what they do. In that respect, “The Mugger” is the best Ed McBain book I’ve read thus far, and you should make reading this one a priority.
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