Thursday, August 29, 2013


Some books have unexpected heroes.

In Ed McBain's King's Ransom, two thugs kidnap the son of a wealthy shoe magnate. Actually, they mistake the chauffeur’s son for the boy, and they kidnap the wrong child.

Steve Carella and the members of the 87th Precinct do two things they hate. They work a child kidnapping, one of the most emotional things they ever do. And they work with a rich family who thinks local cops are incompetent.

The wealthy magnate, Douglas King, refuses to pay the half-million-dollar ransom. After all, it is not his son who was taken. Besides, he is in the midst of a backbreaking takeover of his company, Granger Shoe. To pay the ransom will bankrupt him and leave him unemployed.

In the midst of the story we learn two things: (1) Few people are all good or all evil; and (2) This is not Dragnet.

The second point is a major point in the early 87th Precinct stories. Early in the story Carella tells King, “Mr. King, I'll tell you now flatly and immodestly that I am a good cop. I am a damn good cop. I know my job, and I do it well, and any questions I ask you are not asked because I'm auditioning for Dragnet.”

McBain has his characters make similar comments in other early books.

McBain feels Dragnet is idealized and simplistic. For one thing, it takes a squad, not just Joe Friday (and whoever happens to be Friday's sidekick) to solve a crime. And for another thing, cops aren't all good, criminals aren't all evil, and victims are more than just victims.

In other words, people in the police-procedural world are complex. McBain wants to portray them that way. And portray them that way he does in King's Ransom

Finally, all kinds of people break character, act in unexpected ways. All kinds of people are good and evil making this a book with strong emotions and unexpected twists and turns.

Just when I think I have been able to put Ed McBain in a box, to understand his forumla, he breaks the mold. That's one thing I like about Ed McBain.


“One thing I stopped worrying about the minute I became a detective,” Carella said, “is motive. If you try to figure out what motivates a crook, you go nuts.”

“He's a sitter, Diane. And the sitters all want something for nothing.”--Peter King's words about his chauffeur. King believes it is the chauffeur’s fault he isn't rich enough to pay the ransom. 

There are no punch lines in real life.--McBain's comment in the narration. 

–---“Revenge isn't sweet,” Carella said. “It is only boring.”


Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

Spot-on review Joe - I think this one does really stand out from the book's of the 50s - and later was filmed by Kurosawa as HIGH AND LOW. though I have always been surprised how similar the plot feels to RANSOM, which MGM had filmed with Glenn Ford around the same time that he starred in Evan Hunter's BLACKBOARD JUGLE.

Joe Barone said...

Thanks Patti. This book reminded me again of what I really liked about Ed McBain.

Kelly Robinson said...

'Good' and 'bad' are not black-and-white concepts, and my favorite writers don't just know that -- they take advantage of it. Thanks for the review.

George said...

I've read the entire 87th Precinct series and KING'S RANSOM is one of the early gems. As you point out, the characters are realistic. And the writing is terrific!

Joe Barone said...

Kelly and George, Sorry to be so long in acknowledging your comments. We just got back from several days away seeing our new grandson.

Kelly, I agree. This book did one of the best jobs I've ever seen of showing that good and bad are not black-and-white concepts.

George, I guess that's what still amazes me about Ed McBain. Few writers are both good writers and great at complex, interesting characters. McBain often does both.