23 March 2009

Book Review: The Heckler

The Heckler (1960)
Evan Hunter writing as Ed McBai

No, that isn’t the cover of the edition I read. I have the standard in-print mass-market paperback from Pocket Books. But I love this UK cover, so I had to use it.

This is the twelfth book in “Ed McBain”’s long-running series of novels about the cops of the 87th Precinct, and it introduced the series’ most famous running antagonist. It’s only the second one I’ve read, following up on the first of the 87th Precinct mysteries, Cop Hater.

Evan Hunter felt comfortable with his role as a dual-identity writer. As Hunter (a name he legally adopted in 1952, changing it from Salvatore Lombino), he wrote mainstream fiction, most famously The Blackboard Jungle. Under the Ed McBain name, he wrote crime fiction, but admitted his real identity in 1958. He continued using both names, enjoying the freedom of a literary split personality which would alert his fans to what kind of novel they were about to read. Eventually, Hunter and “McBain” collaborated on a novel, Candyland, certainly one of the most interesting cases of an author colliding with his pseudonym.

The 87th Precinct novels are classics of the “Police Procedural” subgenre of crime and mystery fiction, and they set the stage for the flood of television shows that use the quotidian duties of cops solving real-world crimes with tried-and-true methods mixed with developing technology. Right now, the police procedural is the standard for television mystery shows, and we can thank Hunter/McBain for keeping it in the public eye over his long career. (He died in 2005.) The detectives of the 87th Precinct work from Isola, a kind-of sort-of not-really Manhattan, much like Gotham City. Although the roster of which cops take on the duties of the main character shifts around with each novel, Detective Steve Carella usually has a leading part.

Turning to The Heckler, in this novel we meet the master-plotter known as “the deaf man.” (Yes, McBain always writes it in lower case as a description instead of a title.) The deaf man would appear in six 87th Precinct novels, ending in 2004’s Hark!. The deaf man first appears in a poker game, where he displays his unerring skill with calculation. The deaf man isn’t actually deaf; he wears a hearing-aid and pretends he’s hard-of-hearing as an affectation, and also as a parallel to Steve Carella’s deaf-mute wife Teddy. His criminal methods boil down to pure mathematics, the belief that he can simply apply enough theorems to the odds to create a perfect crime. One of the most obvious comparisons in crime literature is Sherlock Holmes’s nemesis Professor Moriarty, although I feel more inclined to think of the deaf man as the Riddler.
“. . . the cops are playing the long run. They’ve got this cute, quaint, antiquated, friendly, bumbling law enforcement machine and in the long run, through a combination of choice and chance, they will make their arrests and maintain order—primarily because the percentages are on their side. Most citizens, you see, are law-abiding. But tell me something. . . . What happens when someone comes along and screws up the percentages? What happens when the police are forced to cope with something the likes of which they’ve never encountered before? What happens when they’re forced to deal with the short run?”
You’re reading the book to find out, of course.

The deaf man’s plan is a huge one, and both he and McBain take their inspiration for it from the classic Sherlock Holmes story “The Red-Headed League.” The plot starts with the deaf man having his associates harass various Isola businesses with phone calls demanding that they vacate their premises by April 30, or else they’ll kill them. One of the tormented storeowners brings in the police, and Meyer Meyer ends up on the case of the “Heckler.” Meanwhile, Carella investigates the murder of a “John Smith” that might have a connection to the deaf man’s plans.

The scheme that finally erupts is pretty damn magnificent, on the level of a full terrorist assault that would make a good premise for a Spider novel. However, the story fizzles out right as it seems to ready to reach the climax; McBain’s solution involves a nameless character cracking the case, and that isn’t satisfying for me, although the deaf man might argue with me about the irony of it.

Although I’ve enjoyed both 87th Precinct novels I’ve read, I can’t say that I have much feeling for the cops in the precinct. It’s the adversaries and the minor characters who grab my attention. In The Heckler, I always looked forward to getting back to the deaf man and his partners, and never felt much connection to Carella or Meyer—and they hardly register in the finale. Perhaps this changes in the later, usually lengthier novels. I’ll hold back on judging the whole series right now (only fair, since I’ve read only two entries) and say that The Heckler is modest police-work entertainment with a great villain for a star.