One of my quiet little eccentricities is that I love to study packaging. Ideally, packaging not only encourages the purchase of an item but also lends some utilitarian benefit to the user. Accordingly, I really love my copy of LULLABY, VESPERS, WIDOWS by Ed McBain, which readily fulfills both conditions.
What we have here is three of McBain's 87th Precinct masterpieces bound into a hefty trade paperback and available for less than the cost of a hardcover. If you needed any encouragement to purchase this almost 800 page volume, beyond the name "McBain" on the front and the spine of the book, you've got it in the price and the convenience. If you're unfamiliar with McBain, or crime fiction in general, this is a very inexpensive price of admission for acquaintance. Utilitarian benefit? Comin' out of your ears. One volume, instead of three, to take on the bus or on vacation or in the car. Finish LULLABY, start VESPERS, no waiting. And, perhaps most importantly, three sterling examples of how to write not just crime fiction but how to write a novel in any genre.
There's a danger in packaging three of a series of anything together. If you've ever watched one of those James Bond film marathons for more that eight hours at a stretch you know what I mean. What you begin to pick up is the formula behind them. It's not so obvious when you watch one every year or two; you even take comfort in the familiarity. But stack one on top of the other and, unless whatever you're watching or reading is really well done, it gets tedious. Fortunately, the 87th Precinct novels are really well done.
Does McBain follow a formula? Well, yes, he does. The 87th Precinct books normally start off with either the 87th Precinct Homicide guys at the scene of a crime, divining the leavings of the aftermath, or they begin by giving the reader an incomplete peek at the commission of the crime itself. At some point, another investigation will begin and the book will proceed on the twin tracks of both investigations, while some aspect of one or more of the detectives' personal lives moves along a bit. Does this keep things familiar for the long time reader? Yes, but newbies need not fear, as McBain is an expert at backing and filling for the new kids on the block without boring the grizzled veteran readers. Does this formula make things predictable? Oh no, not at all! Anything can happen; anything is fair game. Just like the real world. Relationships begin, end, and endure. People, old friends, die suddenly. And life goes on, even if it occasionally lurches awkwardly.
LULLABY begins with the detectives at a crime scene in the first hours of a new year. This novel, as much as any that McBain has ever written, demonstrates, within its first few pages, the incredible talent of the man. The reader is aware that something unspeakably terrible has occurred; it takes a few pages, however, before the degree of it is fully revealed. The squad at the same time investigates a burglary that happened on the same night, in the same building, due to the fact that the crimes may in some way be related. One of the 87th Precinct's female detectives attempts, in the meantime, to deal with the aftershocks that a shooting in the line of duty has created in her professional, and personal, life.
VESPERS, in the alternative, opens with a view --- however incomplete --- of a murder: specifically, the murder of a priest. The reader, of course, does not know who did it, any more than do the 87th Precinct detectives. Motives and suspects abound. The priest had taken a proactive approach against a local satanic church; he had also chastised his parishioners for being less than generous in their financial contributions; and he had some personal secrets as well. Did any of these factors lead to his murder? Or was it something else entirely? The detectives also investigate a neighborhood incident that appears to have racial overtones along with a tenuous connection to the church. It appears to be an unfortunate but typical assault, the result of a turf battle; but it is far more complicated than that. While the whys and wherefores of both crimes are investigated, past actions of the lover of one of the 87th detectives come back to haunt her --- and him.
WIDOWS again begins with the 87th Precinct on the scene of a murder --- this time the murder of an attractive young woman. There are no real clues for them to follow, other than a set of unsigned, erotic love letters. When a prominent, wealthy attorney is also murdered --- and a similar set of letters is found --- the connection is clear. When the attorney's wife, and ex-wife, also meet a brutal end, it becomes certain that a vendetta is being carried out. But by whom? While the string of murders is being investigated, the father of one the detectives of the 87th is the victim of a brutal robbery, the investigation of which will culminate in a hostage situation, with repercussions for two other members of the squad.
LULLABY, VESPERS, WIDOWS were chosen to be anthologized in this manner because, as noted by McBain in his fine new introduction, they were written and published in chronological order in the late 1980s and early 1990s, at a time when New York City --- the model for McBain's fictional city --- appeared to be in the grip of distrust and despair. The novels thus function not only as a model for storytelling but also as a document of the times. They are worth reading in their entireties for either reason and shall undoubtedly endure for both.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on May 1, 2001