Book Review : Ed McBain - The Mugger (1956)
Ed McBain's 87th Pretinct novels were the ancestors to contemporary syndicated crime shows like CSI and Law & Order: SVU. Before Benson, Stabler, Gil Grissom, Horatio Caine and their pleasantly predictable character casts were the boys of the 87th Pretinct, who provided American readers with their fair share of throwaway thrills. Earlier this summer, I reviewed the novel that started it all Cop Hater and was swayed by its humanizing treatment of cops. Enough so that I bought the sequel The Mugger, which was completely different and eerily similar.
Protagonists of Cop Hater Steve Carella is not featured in The Mugger. He appears in the last chapter to foreshadow his presence in the following book, but that's it. The protagonists of this book are Roger Havilland, Hal Willis and Bert King, who all played a supporting role in the previous installment. In The Mugger, the 87th precinct detectives are looking for a loser who brutally preys on women the little money they carry in their purses. He introduces himself as Clifford to them. The detectives don't take it very seriously until a young woman is found dead after an apparent mugging gone wrong.
It's difficult to review The Mugger, because it offers so much of the same as its predecessor. It's not a negative per se, for it gives you a clear reason to read the novels. Ed McBain's 87th precinct novels' calling cards are their compassion and lack of a rigid "system" that divides civilians and members of law enforcement. Their cops don't live at the station. They have lives and sometimes families to protect outside, so their interest in protecting civilians isn't only professional. Steve Carella, Bert Kling and the others are viscerally invested in their investigations because they're protecting their own. The 87th precinct detectives are somewhat of an American ideal of what cops should be.
Perhaps the biggest thematic difference between The Mugger and Cop Hater is that it features Roger Havilland more heavily. Havilland is lazy, cynical and doesn't really believe in what he's doing. His counterpoint is embodied by Bert Kling, a patrolman who's so addicted to helping people, he pulls double shifts and volunteers for outreach with young Jeanie outside of work hours. So, there's somewhat of an ideological clash in The Mugger that wasn't featured in its predecessor. While the 87th precinct detectives don't bear any resemblance to contemporary cops, they have an historical and philosophical interest. They are who cops were meant to be in the post-WWII world.
Ed McBain's 87th precinct novels don't pull any punches. If you decide to read one, you know exactly what you're going to get: a working class tragedy that masquerades as a mystery. The detectives are Shakespearean heroes who fight to protect New York city against itself. While they win the individual battles, they are losing the war against a growing sense of chaos. I thought The Mugger was way too telegraphed for me to call it riveting, but its nuances and subtleties kept me coursing through it over two feverish sittings. A thinking man's summer read. It might just become a tradition here to include these books into summer festivities.