Ed McBain, a pseudonym of Evan Hunter, found the pinnacle of his literary success in his 87th Precinct series of police procedural mysteries. The fictionalized version of NYC, the chatty omniscient narrator, and the ensemble cast of worldly-wise police detectives are all ingredients that make the series a lot of fun to read. I’ve been enjoying the thinner early novels in random order, so today we join the series with the eigth installment, 1958’s Lady Killer.
It’s a suffocating summer in the 87th Precinct, and a someone is threatening to kill a lady tonight at 8:00. The threat came to the police station in an anonymous letter. Is the letter legit or the work of a crank? With not much to go on and only 12 hours until 8pm, the cops use the letter itself for leads. Fingerprints? Identification of the delivery boy? And who’s the lady?
Detective Cotton Hawes takes the wheel as lead investigator of the death threat. Hawes is a hard-nosed interrogator who really leans into every interview like he’s shooting for a one-punch knockout. Series mainstay Steve Carella plays second fiddle in the case. Steve is the best detective in the 87th, and a recurring hero in the series. He’s also the smartest mind in the 87th, and his scenes tend to be the best. Watching Cotton and Steve evolve as new friends and partners was a joy to read.
The mystery itself is really two-pronged as the detectives need to identify both the would-be murderer and his intended victim. There are some great action sequences as the cat and mouse game intensifies and bullets start to fly.
To date, Lady Killer is my favorite of the 87th Precinct novels. McBain tightened up his storytelling and let the cast of detectives focus on one important case. There are no significant subplots or a b-story crime to solve, and the final solution was logical, plausible, and satisfying. This one’s a total winner.
Newer editions of Lady Killer contain an insightful introduction by the author explaining how the novel came to be. The paperback was written over nine days during the summer of 1957 at a rate of 20 pages per day.
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