RogerBW's Blog

The Con Man, Ed McBain 17 July 2023

1957 police procedural, fourth in the 87th Precinct series. A con man is finding victims on the streets of Isola… and the body of a young woman has just turned up in the river.

Well, this is also the first of McBain's second three-book contract, after the success of the first three. And it's more of the same: short sentences, simple ideas, and an educational mission, explaining just how police procedure works, with the worked examples of actual crimes being solved.

McBain is at his weakest when he philosophises (aren't we all con men any time we try to make ourselves look good, well I never thought of that before), and strongest with rugged manly men doing manly things (a description of a one-sided fistfight is some of the best writing here).

I'm oddly less convinced by the actual crimes. The con job crew is running a variety of different tricks, rather than specialising in just one as they tend to in the real world; that makes sense, I suppose, as McBain wants to show a variety of scams, though to this modern reader it's hard to see how anyone could fall for them. The killer has elements of the woman-hating psychopath and elements of traditional lonely-hearts fraud, and they don't sit well together. (Yes, all right, Psycho won't be published for another two years and people just don't know about serial killers yet. The term hasn't even been invented – the earliest claimed usage in English is in 1966 and it's not in use by the general public until the 1980s.)

Among the returning case, we get Carella working on the killer, while coming to terms with his near-death (intended to be an actual death but the publishers disagreed) in The Pusher, while Kling works on the con men, mostly by interviewing their victims. Carella's wife Teddy returns, and I wonder why if she's going out and meeting strangers she doesn't just carry a card saying "I am unable to speak or hear" rather than having to try to invent signs each time. Still.

I'm still waiting for it to "get good", but it's not actively bad.

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Previous in series: The Pusher | Series: 87th Precinct | Next in series: Killer's Choice

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