Thursday, June 6, 2013

Forgotten Books: Fuzz by Ed McBain

The first time Ed McBain really registered on my mind was when I saw a book of his at a second-hand books store. I read the brief description at the back and decided not to buy it as I am not too keen on police-procedurals. Only to return home and discover that one of his books: Cop-Hater was on many Top 100 Mystery novels lists. Did I curse myself? And then suddenly all the blogs seemed to talk only of McBain. And did I curse myself?!

This fortnight finally, I read my first McBain: Fuzz. And have fallen in love with the 87th Precinct series.





Fuzz is slang for the police. As the antagonist in the book elaborates, they are called fuzz because "They're fuzzy and fussy and antiquated and incompetent.Their investigatory technique is established and routine, designed for effectiveness in an age that no longer exists. The police in this city are like wind-up toys with keys sticking out of their backs, capable of performing only in terms of their own limited design, tiny mechanical men clattering along the side-walk stiff-legged, scurrying about in aimless circles. But put an obstacle in their path, a brick wall or an orange crate, and they unwind helplessly in the same spot, arms and legs thrashing but taking them nowhere.' The deaf man grinned, 'I, my friend, am the brick wall.' "

The 87th precinct is in a state of chaos. There are two painters, straight from a music-hall comedy, who are painting the office apple-green. The colour is everywhere, even on the cuffs of Lt. Byrnes. Meanwhile, Steve Carella is posing as a vagrant (and smelling like one) in order to to apprehend the lunatics setting vagrants on fire. Carella is so immersed in the role that he even blows his nose noisily in a dirty kerchief making his colleague Meyer Meyer think that there is something like taking your role too seriously. Meyer Meyer is himself troubled as somebody has written a book in which the central character is called Meyer Meyer. He wonders whether some action can be initiated against the author.

Then a note arrives, stating that unless $5000 are put at a stipulated place, the Parks Commissioner would be gunned down. Everybody dismisses it for a crank note, till the Parks Commissioner is shot down. Even before they can recover from this blow, Carella is set on fire by two hooligans. Meanwhile another note arrives. This time the demand has risen to $50,000 and Deputy-Mayor Scanlon is the intended victim. Once again the assassination attempt succeeds. The 87th precinct comes in for a lot of flak. At the end of their tether, the police officials fear that it is their old nemesis The Deaf Man who has come to haunt them. And then another note arrives warning about the imminent demise of the Mayor, His Honour James Martin Vale. Would the 87th precinct be able to save its reputation?

There are certain things that I really liked in this book. First, the policemen are not shown as super-heroes. In fact, at times, they come across as bumbling fools. One of them, for example, shoots himself in haste. Secondly, there are no personal demons that the officers have. They think about their quiet, private troubles but are not goaded by devils. I am tired of police officials bedevilled with broken marriages, unsympathetic children, failing relationships et al. Thirdly, I loved the camaraderie between the officers. They seemed like one close-knit family: Byrnes,  Carella, Meyer, Bert Kling, Arthur Brown, Hal Willis, Cotton Hawes...

And above-all, I absolutely loved the humour present in the book. Here is a description of the good cop-bad cop routine:

Do you expect me to believe that? Willis said.

The cue was one the detectives of the 87th had used many times before in interrogating suspects, and it was immediately seized upon by Meyer, who said, 'Take it easy, Hal,' the proper response, the response that told Willis they were once again ready to assume antagonistic roles. In the charade that would follow, Willis would play the tough bastard out to hang a phoney rap on poor little Alan Perry, while Meyer would play the sympathetic father figure. The other detectives (including Faulk of the 88th, who was familiar with the ploy and had used it often enough himself in his own squadroom) would serve as a sort of nodding Greek chorus, impartial and objective. (108)

Did you or did you not laugh at 'nodding Greek chorus'? I sure did, much to the amusement of my co-passengers in the Delhi Metro.

Or this passage, describing a tense meeting in the mayor's office:

'Your Honour,' the city comptroller said, 'I'd like to suggest that you cancel all personal appearances at least through April.'

'Well, I don't think I should go into complete seclusion, do you?' JMV asked, mindful of the fact that this was an election year.

'Or at least curtail your personal appearances,' the comptroller said, remembering that indeed this was an election year, and remembering too, that he was on the same ticket as His Honour the Mayor JMV. (186)

Now I want to read more of the series. Thankfully, the library has quite a few books.



By a strange co-incidence, Sergio@ Tipping My Fedora reviewed the book, the week I borrowed it from a library. For an incisive review of the novel (and the movie), please see Sergio's post.

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The rest of the post contains SPOILERS so please don't read further unless you have read the book.




Did you suspect the painters? I really did as they seemed to be present everywhere.

Had the Deaf Man selected some other man from the queue and not Anthony La Bresca to bring him the lunch pail, the police would never have tapped his phone, not come to know of the heist planned, or planted themselves at an opportune time at the John the Tailor's shop. That was the wild card in the Deaf Man's deck, the joker that spoiled the show. I can't help but feel that there is some sort of a poetic justice in that.






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First Line: OH BOY, what a week.

Title: Fuzz: An 87th Precinct Mystery Novel

Author: Ed McBain

Publishing Details: London: Pan, 1974

First Published: 1968

Pages: 205

Other books read of the same author: None

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The book might be available at second-hand book stores or libraries. I borrowed it from H.M. Library at Fountain [F.M.A 110].

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Submitted for the following challenges: 52 Books in 52 Weeks, 2013 Mystery/ Crime, Let Me Count the Ways, Library Books, New Authors.

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Entry for Friday's Forgotten Books.




8 comments:

  1. Well reviewed, Neer. I'm new to Ed McBain's novels too, having first read them last year or the year before; thanks in the main to Sergio's absorbing reviews of his books. I have read very few (not this one) and my first impression was that McBain is rather cavalier about getting rid of people (there's usually more than one dead body) and, I agree, his cops are ordinary with their foibles and failings, but hugely entertaining nonetheless.

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    1. Thanks Prashant. I agree completely that Sergio's reviews of McBain's books are absolutely absorbing.

      The best part of the book was the interaction between the cops. Adored it.

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  2. So glad you liked it too - it is an especially humorous entry, it has to be said, but I think you are spot-on in pointing to the comparative lack of angst as being something of a selling point in this day and age - greta review Neer.

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    1. Thanks Sergio. And I was very thankful that there was not an overflow of personal troubles and private trauma.

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  3. Neeru - Oh, I am so glad you enjoyed this one. One of the things I've always liked about this series is the sense of humour that is woven through it. Yes of course stories are sometimes shockingly sad. But there is I think also a strength of spirit. I like the ensemble nature of the detection too, as well as the characterisation. You've done an excellent review here.

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    1. Thanks a lot Margot. I love your phrase 'strength of spirit'. The humour, of course, is very nicely done.

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  4. Glad you liked this one, Neer. Nice review, as usual. I have only read the first one in the series, Cop Hater. Will be reading another one in the near future. And looking forward to it.

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    1. Thanks Tracy K. I look forward to reading your review of an Ed McBain.

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