America lost one of its greatest writers in July with the death of Evan Hunter at the age of 78. Mystery fans knew Hunter better as Ed McBain, the nom de plum of the author of the 87th Precinct police procedurals. FIDDLERS is the 55th and final installment in this popular series.
We first met the dedicated, overworked detectives of the 87th back in 1956 when the war was Cold and Ike was in the White House. Police procedurals existed, of course, before McBain. But in his talented hands, he created one of the most remarkable and enduring creations in American literary history.
Set in the imaginary island city of Isola, which closely resembled McBain's New York, the city itself has always been the main character of these novels. And these books mirror the changes that have taken place in urban America and America itself over half a century.
Interestingly, the detectives, led by Steve Carella, have not aged a day over this time. They are still locked in their mid-30s. And human nature has not changed; people still kill each other for the usual reasons: greed, lust, stupidity and revenge. But future readers will be able to see what period each novel was written in by the changing references to the wars of America, from Korea and Vietnam to Iraq and Abu Ghraib.
But fans don't read McBain for the sociology. They read these books because they are wonderful mysteries, written by a master craftsman. You might think that by book 55 the format would have gotten stale and tired. You would be wrong.
FIDDLERS is a book that will delight longtime McBain fans while serving as a worthy introduction for those who have never read one. All of the detectives we have come to know so well over the years, including the still unpopular if now dieting Fat Ollie Weeks, take part in the investigation or put in a cameo appearance. And once again, McBain weaves several stories seamlessly together into a single tapestry. This is an 87th Precinct novel that does not miss a beat.
The author had been battling serious health problems in recent years. And there is a poignant, almost melancholic, feel throughout this book. The first murder victim is a blind Vietnam vet who worked as a violinist in a nightclub for "geezers." The title is taken from a Cole Porter lyric about any bar or nightclub in the wee, wee hours of the morning right before closing: "Before the Fiddler have fled/ Before they ask us to pay the bill."
Of course, mortality and sudden, usually violent, death are the staples of any McBain novel. But this one is different. In the two weeks after the fiddler's death, the killer claims four more victims. But as Detective Hawes notes, "everybody in this case already had one foot in the grave." The victims range in age from 55 to 74, with no apparent links between them except that they are all shot twice in the face by the same 9-millimeter Glock.
Hunter once told me that he fully intended the 87th Precinct novels to end with him. And while there are intimations of the end in FIDDLERS, McBain did not write this as the last book in the series. Story lines involving the personal lives of our heroes are still left open. Carella is faced with trouble on the home front as one of his teenage twins experiments with marijuana. And poor Bert Kling's love life explodes with disastrous consequences. And then there is bigoted Fat Ollie, who finds himself perhaps falling in love with Patricia Gomez and is forced to face the loss of his "essential Ollie-ness."
These issues will now go unresolved. But FIDDLERS illustrates exactly why the 87th Precinct series has been so enduring. McBain created characters we care about. These cops are engaged in a never-ending fight against the darkness, yet somehow never become dark themselves. They are basically good, decent, public servants who do their jobs and do them well, despite the frustrations and lack of monetary rewards.
To solve this case, they must dig back decades into the lives of the victims and rely on good old-fashioned investigative work. "You couldn't gauge reactions on the telephones; that's why legwork was invented," Detectives Genero and Parker muse. This is sound advice not just for police detectives but for journalists as well.
McBain was one of the last of the generation of writers who learned his craft at the pulp magazines, the real world of "pulp fiction." But he was a lot more than simply a hard-boiled mystery writer. He was a truly great storyteller.
In real life, Evan Hunter/Ed McBain was a warm and generous man. I was lucky enough to interview him and write a profile on him several years back. Hunter was one of our best novelists; check out a book he wrote entitled THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE. But he found it amusing that he had become more famous as Ed McBain than Evan Hunter. And, indeed, the 87th Precinct novels will be read as long as people read mysteries. McBain's name and words will live on much as Agatha Christie lives on long after her death.
FIDDLERS is a fitting coda to a brilliant career. And rather than be sad, we should feel privileged that we were there with front row seats as one of our greatest literary fiddlers worked the room. Yes, the fiddler has fled for good, but we can always go back and enjoy his work. The work lasts forever.
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on January 24, 2011