By Benjamin Jones
In the year 1956, as Adlai Stevenson was gearing up for a second run against Ike, a cheap mystery novel called "Cop Hater" was published. Its author, who bore the suspiciously fake-sounding name of Ed McBain, had an unusual idea for a series. Instead of a single, charismatic hero, the 87th Precinct novels would revolve around an ensemble, a squad room full of detectives. These would be fairly unglamorous detectives, stuck with routine chores of paperwork and surveillance. They would also be vulnerable. The characters in the debut novel turned out to be more vulnerable than the average: about half of the prominent characters got murdered. Most of the stand-bys of the run were introduced in the next four volumes.
The 87th Precinct series got an initial commitment of only three books from its wary publisher. The exploits of Detective/2nd Grade Steve Carella- a rangy and laconic police vet who turned out to be a little more equal than the others- and the rest of the gang achieved a surprising popularity, and wound up staying on the scene for decades. Near the end of 1999, McBain published "The Last Dance", an epic crime novel that seemed to end the 87th Precinct franchise with the century. Needless to say, a good number of McBain’s many fans were saddened by this seeming finale.
Well, they can cheer up. A new millennium is here, and so is a new tale of the 87th Precinct. "Money, Money, Money" shows that McBain, who in everyday life goes by the name Evan Hunter, has lost none of his skill or his style. In fact, his ear for urban slang and his grand-but-sad vision of the underworld have only become clearer over the years. "Money..." continues a string of unqualified blowouts that started with 1995’s "Romance."
The story begins far from Isola, the Manhattanesque urban district in which the Precinct is located. To be specific, it starts on the Texas-Mexico border, where a female Gulf War veteran named Cassandra Ridley is renting her piloting skills out to some gentlemen in the cocaine trade. She does such a super job for them that they give her a tip of several thousand dollars. When she gets back East, the money is stolen from her apartment by a doofus of a burglar. He lays down a $100 bill at a bar, hoping to impress a blonde. A shifty Secret Service Agent confiscates the rest of the money, throwing out a cockamamie story about a list of bills involved in a kidnapping. All of this is very funny, a bedroom farce without sex, but this being a murder mystery, you know it has to end in tragedy.
When it does, the regulars of the 87th Precinct show up in force. From novel to novel, the focus has been shifting among the Detectives, with Carella generally sharing the spotlight with whoever gets partnered with him. Carella works this case with patient wisecracker Meyer Meyer, and the former does have a lot of big scenes. Following the shooting deaths of his father and a well-liked informant, he has fallen into a hard-drinking funk. Worse, cracks are beginning to show in his relationship with beautiful, deaf-mute wife Teddy Carella. Carella’s family subplots are likely to be developed further in the next 87th Precinct novel.
But Money, Money, Money is stolen by another character: Detective/1st Grade Oliver Wendell Weeks, known affectionately as Fat Ollie Weeks. Weeks is actually from the neighboring 88th Precinct, and sometimes seems to be their only cop. This character is an Archie Bunker bigot with a gun, not to mention numerous food stains on his tie. He is also a surprisingly nimble-minded investigator. When a grisly fluke pulls Fat Ollie onto the case, the reader can expect him to be valuable to his colleagues in the 87th. Said reader can also expect some vile, yet disturbingly funny interior monologues.
Ollie could remember a time when the Mob ruled this part of the city, and all the Negroes and spics were running around doing the legwork for them while the Wops pulled in all the hard cash. Now it was different. The Wops should have learned to speak Spanish or so-called Black English, which meant saying, “I done gone sell some dope to school chillun.”
This might be a good time to mention the fact that McBain may be the first white mystery writer to regularly feature an African-American detective in his books. That character, Detective/3rd Grade Arthur Brown, is not prominent in this work, but has been a strong and reassuringly good presence in other recent Precinct novels. McBain goes well beyond popular stereotypes..
In all, "Money..." is a very big-hearted book, offering redemption where you might not expect it. It’s also got a nasty sense of humor. Stick around, Ed.