Friday, September 6, 2013


In Ed McBain's Give the Boys a Great Big Hand (1960), a beat patrolman finds a flight bag with a severed hand.

In fact, he watches a person in black leave the hand at a bus stop and then ride the bus away. (He doesn't know it is a hand until he looks in the bag after the bus has left.)

The cops of the Isola 87th Precinct search the missing persons records. The coroner tells them the hand is large. It probably came from a large man. The murderer cut away the fingerprints so the hand's size is all they have to go on.

Carella and his crew follow up until they have narrowed the known possibilities. Then they seem to hit a dead end.

Their search centers around a beautiful stripper. Several men competed for her.

Then they find the second hand.

If all this sounds gruesome, you need to know this story has just begun. 

Give the Boys a Great Big Hand is the most macabre 87th precinct novel yet. It is a brilliant combination of police procedural and horror story. In that regard, aside from the style, it reminded me of the macabre William Faulkner.

And all this is for a purpose. At one point McBain writes, “If you are one of those people who like motion pictures where a man fires a gun and a small spurt of dust explodes on the victim's chest—just a small spurt of dust, no blood—then police work is not the line for you. Similarly, if you are one of those people who believes corpses look 'just like they're sleeping,' it is fortunate you are not a cop. If you are a cop, you know that death is seldom pretty, that it is in fact the ugliest and most frightening event that can over take a human being.”

McBain seems convinced that movies and much fiction glamorize murder, make it seem tame. Those same stories also glamorize what it means to be a cop.

None of that for Ed McBain. Whatever else police work is (and McBain has great respect for good cops), it is not heroic (in the traditional sense) or glamorous. This is the second book in a row to make that point strongly.

McBain is always breaking new ground. He writes about the squad, not the individual detective. He portrays cops as having families, having love and loss. And he writes about police work in what he sees to be a realistic way.

If that's the kind of thing you are looking for in a police procedural, I recommend Ed McBain. 


“Bert,” she said, “man does not live by bed alone.”


“The city is a woman, you understand. It could be nothing but a woman. A small town can be the girl next door or an old man creaking in a rocker or a gangly teenager growing out of his dungarees, but the city could be none of these things, the city can only be a woman. And like a woman, the city generates love and hate, respect and disesteem, passion and indifference. She is always the same city, always the same woman, but oh the faces she wears, oh the magic guile of this strutting bitch.”

--The beginning of McBain's chapter-long beautiful paean to the city.


Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

You really made me want to re-read this one Joe - it is definitely one of the best of the McBain books of that era, especially coming as it did after the especially weak 'TILL DEATH.

Joe Barone said...

Sergio, The book is well worth rereading.

Barry Ergang said...

'TIL DEATH was the first 87th Precinct novel I read--I was 14--and it hooked me on the series. GIVE THE BOYS A GREAT BIG HAND was one of my favorites in this outstanding series.

But Joe, I have to take issue with your assertion that McBain writes about the squad, not the individual detective. He does both, and in so doing makes these people get up and walk off the page. You get to know the cops (and many of the other characters) as flesh-and-blood figures, not just names on a page.

Joe Barone said...

Barry, He does do individuals well. I agree.

Kelly Robinson said...

A severed hand and a stripper? What more could you want? Sounds like a fun one.

Joe Barone said...

Kelly, Also, hard working cops who cover all the details.