I've been on a bit of a television-viewing jag recently, watching
marathon showings of police ensemble series such as NYPD
Blue, Homicide and Hill Street Blues. While these
programs have their high points --- many high points, actually ----
they are at once a tribute to, and beholden to, Ed McBain. All of
them, unconsciously or otherwise, use his 87th Precinct series as a
template. The different personalities of the detectives bouncing
off each other, the multiple subplots that carry over for several
episodes and the snappy dialogue all started with COP KILLER. COP
KILLER was published in 1956, about the time I was learning to hold
a pencil properly and before my wife was even born. 48 years later,
McBain, as demonstrated in THE FRUMIOUS BANDERSNATCH, is still
demonstrating how to get the job done.
I have in the twilight of my middle age grown jaded and cynical, so
my initial impression of this new 87th Precinct installment was
that it was a short story on steroids, an idea that couldn't carry
a novel so was accordingly pumped a bit with filler. The beginning
seemed to go on for just a bit too long at first, regarding the
hows and whys and wherefores of the music business, as McBain puts
his readers on the deck of a yacht in the middle of a party
celebrating the release of a new CD entitled "Bandersnatch" by a
new pop star named Tamar Valparaiso.
However, it turns out that McBain was just taking his time, setting
up his blocks. My complaint is somewhat akin to the snot-nosed brat
on the roller coaster who, as his car rises slowly and inexorably
high above the rest of the amusement park, whines that nothing is
happening. Matters in THE FRUMIOUS BANDERSNATCH kick into high gear
soon enough; Valparaiso, in the middle of lip-synching and dancing
her way through a reenactment of her controversial new video, is
kidnapped in full view of the horrified partygoers.
Enter Steve Carella of the 87th, who catches the squeal. His first
act is to interview Barney Loomis, President of Bison Records,
Valparaiso's label. Carella promptly has jurisdiction yanked out
from under him by a joint Federal-Local Task Force called "The
Squad," but he soon finds himself actively involved in the
investigation at the insistence of Loomis, who reiterates his
confidence in Carella and resists any attempt to relegate Carella
to errand-boy status. When Valparaiso's kidnappers demand a ransom,
Carella finds himself caught between The Squad, which wants the
kidnappers, and Loomis, who just wants Valparaiso back.
In the meantime, "Bandersnatch" is flying off the shelves, courtesy
of the attendant publicity. The three kidnappers, as unlikely a
team as you'll ever find, get their money. When they discover that
their captive is an instant star, however, they hold out for more.
McBain's narrative burns up the pages. It's not just the suspense
he infuses into the storyline, though that would be more than
enough. It's that he continues to write so well. In what would
otherwise be the twilight of a brilliant career, McBain once again
tests his own considerable boundaries and conquers them.
May I give you one example? There is an interlude involving
Detective Cotton Hawes, who is out on a first date with an
extremely lovely lady. The dialogue between them as they verbally
dip and dance as a prelude to what they both know and hope is
coming later in the evening is so riveting that one has to stop and
read the sequence over a few times just to revel in the reality of
it all. It's a simple scene but so hard to do correctly. McBain's
execution is perfect, a prelude to a conclusion that contains not
just one, but two, surprise endings.
THE FRUMIOUS BANDERSNATCH is a masterwork by a grand master. Does
it get any better than this? No --- at least not until McBain's
next work. Very highly recommended.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 22, 2011
The Frumious Bandersnatch a Novel of the 87th