by Ed McBain
Hard Case Crime, July 2015/$9.95
From small things, baby, big things one day come. And this,
the first mystery novel by Ed McBain, originally published as The Evil Sleep! by
Evan Hunter (one of his many aliases) certainly bears that out.
it’s a bad book — far from it. It’s just that it lacks the rich and incisive
characterizations and roll-with-it storytelling voodoo that McBain would become
known for later in his long, long career.
You can definitely see hints of it,
though, and almost imagine the young tyro, itching to break into then-new (and
lucrative) paperback market, doubling down on all things dark and pulpy: the
sleazy nightclubs and back alleys, the damaged and busted dreamers waiting in
the shadows; the rough-edged cheap patter; the crimes, both petty and major; the
bruised and battered lives going nowhere. Already McBain/Hunter is playing with
form, upending stock characters, tripping up stereotypes of race and class,
futzing around with plot.
And so we get Ray Stone, a former piano hotshot
(and once-upon-a-time nice, middle-class kid) now living from fix to fix.
Yep, he’s a “junkie.”
He’s got a “monkey on his back.”
He’s hooked on
As in “Horse.”
As in “Heroin.”
As in “really going nowhere.”
some ways this is still pretty much a typically cheesy fifties drug novel, with
most of the expected tropes and lingo present and accounted for (a formula Sara
Gran later milked for all its worth in Dope). Ray’s career has been pretty much
pissed away and his relationship with a token “good girl” just a memory. Even
his long-suffering father has more or less given up on him.
All that matters
for Ray now is that next blessed fix, and he doesn’t much care how he gets it. A
pickup in a bar leads to a night of sex and drugs and waking up in a strange bed
beside the “blonde” he followed home. She’s very nude, and very dead, of course,
courtesy of a bullet hole or two. Significantly, her stash of heroin (a very
large stash of heroin) is no longer around. Ray, of course, has no idea how any
of it happened, but knows he’ll be the prime suspect in her murder. So he
flees, figuring he’ll have to track down the real killer if he wants to clear
But first? He needs a fix.
Things go as expected —
lies are exposed, people are betrayed, a few more bodies pile up, and Ray sweats
a lot. It’s all somehow pleasantly predictable. Yet Ray proves to be more
resourceful and tougher than he — or the reader -- may have given him credit
for, and while some of the drug paranoia and knee-jerk moralizing of the era
creeps in, the author gets kudos for humanizing Ray, making him something more
than the two-dimensional patsy that usually comes with this territory. You can
almost feel McBain pushing and picking at the boundaries, trying to find a way
to — if not topple — at least bend those expectations towards the sort of stores
he wants to tell. And of course he nails New York City to the wall.
I said, a solid first effort, hinting of bigger things to come, and yet
satisfying in its own right; a strong example of a different time. Get your pulp
on, and enjoy.