The Mugger (87th Precinct 2) by Ed McBain

Second book syndrome…

🙂 🙂 🙂

The detectives of the 87th Precinct are trying to catch a man who is mugging women in the streets of Isola, a district of the city that is clearly a fictionalised version of New York in which the series is set. The man is becoming more violent, often hitting the women even after he has stolen their valuables, and has the strange habit of finishing his assault by bowing and saying “Clifford thanks you, madam.” So far the detectives have little to go on, and the pressure ramps up when one girl, assumed to be Clifford’s latest victim, is found dead.

Having loved the first book in the series, Cop Hater, when I read it a couple of years ago, my expectations of this one were high. It is very readable, but suffers a bit from second book syndrome – McBain seems to be working out what to do with the characters he introduced us to in book 1, and there are so many detectives flitting in and out that it’s quite hard to keep track of who’s who. McBain’s plan was to have the series work as a kind of ensemble, with different detectives coming in and out of the spotlight in each story, and from my memory of reading several of the books long ago, he does succeed in this to a degree. But eventually he succumbed and made Steve Carella the recurring lead – the detective who was the main character in Cop Hater. Carella isn’t in this one, being off on his honeymoon, and his lack is felt.

As the story progresses, Patrolman Bert Kling comes to the fore. He was friends long ago with the brother-in-law of the dead girl, and the girl’s sister asks him to look into her murder. Although this is not the job of a patrolman, Bert feels obliged by friendship to try at least, and he also hopes that it might help him in his ambition to be promoted to detective.

The major problem with the story is that the solution is screamingly obvious. Maybe it wouldn’t have been back then – it’s always a problem to know with older books whether this was perhaps the first time a writer took a plot in this direction, but I fear it’s a plot we’ve all read too often now. My secondary problem was with the amount of violence in the book and its lack of credibility. My dad, who was a boxer, always used to scoff at Hollywood cowboy films where a man would be punched repeatedly in the face, hit over the head with a chair, be thrown over a bar and crash head-first into a wall lined with glasses and then get up, jump on his horse and gallop off after the bad guys, stopping only to kiss the heroine on his way out. While there are no horses nor indeed chairs in this book, the effect of the excessive violence and the characters’ reaction to it had the same effect on me. McBain seems to be using violence and police corruption to give the book its noir tone, whereas in Cop Hater he relied much more on creating an edgy atmosphere through great descriptions of the city.

So one for fans, but not one I would suggest as an introduction to the series for newcomers. The series ran for approximately ten thousand books – well, OK, over fifty – so there are plenty of others to choose from.

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20 thoughts on “The Mugger (87th Precinct 2) by Ed McBain

    • His writing is excellent, especially the descriptions of life in the city. I’m pretty sure my mental image of New York is based on reading his books in my teens. It’s decades since I read any of them until recently, and they’ve stood the test of time well.

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  1. That’s the thing about a long series like this one, FictionFan, even a classic series like this that’s so (in my opinion) good. There are always a few that aren’t quite there. I do agree with you about the violence; some of these books do get a little violent, and I’ve never really liked that. You make an interesting point about the cast of characters, too; I hadn’t thought about how many there are, but there really are. I hope you’ll try other books in this series. This one may not be the best, but there are other really well-done ones (well, at least I think they are).

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    • From memory it gets easier as the series goes on because you kinda get to know all the characters and they become better developed, but in this early one there were two many and they just seemed to flick past too quickly to become “real”. I know I always found this series a bit variable – loved some, wasn’t so keen on others, and I think on the whole it was the Carella ones I enjoyed most, so I’ll probably look out for a couple of those next rather than trying to read them in order. In any case at the rate of one every three years, I’d have to become immortal… 😉

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    • Yes, maybe publishers were a bit more willing to take a chance on somebody trying something different back then, and given how successful the series became they made the right decision!

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  2. Ouch! I feel for poor Mr. McBain and am glad he’s not around to read your review (but in his lifetime, he probably had several more scathing ones, and yours really wasn’t too harsh, all things considered!). I agree completely with your points, though, and wonder if he just needed to get his main lead out of the way so he could firm him up more for later books??

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    • I think originally he didn’t want to have a main lead, but to circulate around the team. Which is an interesting idea but makes it harder for the reader to feel emotionally involved somehow. He gave in in the end, and Carella emerged as the main lead, and from my long ago memories I enjoyed those ones more…

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