RogerBW's Blog

The Mugger, Ed McBain 24 August 2022

1956 police procedural, second in the 87th Precinct series. A mugger's attacking women in the city, with a distinctive pattern to his crimes.

There are two main plots, which intersect. On the one hand, the 87th Precinct detectives try to track down the mugger, using informers and bait; on the other, the patrolman Bert Kling (just out of hospital after he got shot in Cop Hater) is asked by an old friend to have a word with his young sister-in-law Jeannie who's running a bit wild. When Jeannie turns up dead, perhaps the mugger's latest victim, things get more complicated.

But from a technical perspective the important thing is that Carella, the protagonist of the first book, is away on honeymoon; this is the series that made the whole squad room, to some extent the whole police department, "the hero", rather than just following one detective. So while the detectives have names, and a little bit of characterisation, none of them is particularly developed beyond a trait or two. One of which is a tendency to beat suspects into unconsciousness, which presumably in the 1950s didn't sound as bad as it does now – and that character suffers no repercussions for it, at least here.

This actually grates more for me than something like Lovecraft's or Buchan's casual racism, perhaps because it seems closer to home and less obviously stupid. I ended up feeling similarly about the way all women are described primarily in terms of their attractiveness, and the good-looking ones are "girls" even in their thirties. Yeah, I know, even in its day, this was written for a presumed male audience, and from the way minorities get treated a presumed white one too (in an era when that also meant "not Irish"). Still, all these things are peripheral to the story, which helps: they're failings, but from my position of privilege they aren't ones which invalidate the plot or the characters.

What I did find quite surprising, in this short book, is a relative lack of escalating tension: the muggings have already started before the book does, so the detectives try one thing, then another thing, then another thing, and then there's their man and they bring him in. In his own informal investigation into the death of Jeannie, Kling is warned off by the actual detectives, then makes a connection and solves the case (getting promoted to detective himself), but again it's a last-moment thing rather than a gradual concretion of evidence.

But still, but still… there are all these large-scale problems, but the individual scenes make up for them, the ways of working in necessary plot scaffolding so that it never feels like an infodump, and the practical descriptive writing so that one feels like a witness even as one's still using one's imagination to fill in details.

Perhaps not as interesting as the first book, then, but well worth a look.

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Previous in series: Cop Hater | Series: 87th Precinct

  1. Posted by J Michael Cule at 11:53am on 24 August 2022

    As I recall it Bert Kling turns into the Bad Luck Cop, later in the series. He was constantly losing girlfriends to death or to affairs with other men.

    I've never actually come across copies of the very early ones: I must try to dig them out.

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